Faced

faceless

Q: When’s an Orin not an Orin? A: When it’s a Matt.

The pain above Orin’s right eye pulsed hotter than it had yesterday. When he sat up in twisted sheets that morning he placed both hands over his face and wished he didn’t have to go to work. The steps down off the bus were always the worst, his vision wobbling every time he put his foot down.

By the time he got to the office building he thought he had beaten the pain back enough to get through the day. There was a new security officer at the booth and he insisted on checking each badge at the gate instead of letting everyone in to scan their IDs once they got to their departments. It was a minor inconvenience, but one that stacked men up a dozen deep this close to 9 AM.

The security officer, nametag: Benson, turned a blunt, half-interested gaze Orin’s way and held out his hand.

Orin fumbled for his ID card, digging through the contents of his satchel until his fingers brushed the laminated edge, the plastic slicing through the pad of his thumb. “Dammit,” he hissed, pressing his tongue against the cut as he presented his ID card with the other hand.

“Orin Decker,” the security officer murmured, squinting at the photo then up at his face. The direct stare into his eyes made Orin’s headache surge, colors glowing brighter as his pupils widened. The blue of the security officer’s irises blazed like furious fire and Orin stood transfixed a half second too long when Benson handed his card back.

“Have a good day, sir,” Benson said, encouraging movement, and Orin snapped back into motion, walking inside and up to the twelfth floor, through the second security doors and to his desk. He sat for a moment, slouched in the office chair and staring at his blank computer screen. His breaths felt thick and humid, too wet to process. He gasped, gulped quick mouthfuls of air as pain blazed in his head, a sound growing in his ears, a rolling growl, the roar of a fire he could feel on his skin, smell burning through the synthetic and polyboard cubicles, the skin of his colleagues.

The pain rolled, twisting over like a living organism inside his head. He closed his eyes and ran a hand against the back of his neck, his fingers brushing over the scar of a small contusion he suffered a few years ago. Freak accident. A tackle playing pick-up football, a rock jutting from the base of his skull when he stood up, the pale, stunned faces of his teammates.

Sweat slicked Orin’s brow and he lifted his head, opened his eyes and saw his reflection in the computer screen, though his vision remained blurry in his right eye. He sat forward and squinted at the black glass, looking into his eyes, and he thought he saw something shift, roll over and slither back from the surface.

Someone approached from behind and his gaze shifted.

“Um, hey.”

Orin studied the distorted reflection of the other man in the computer monitor for a moment, and when recognition sparked, the hissing, roaring fire fell silent immediately. He spun in his chair and looked up at the newest intern’s ID badge: Matt Hall. He’d only been around a few weeks, sat kitty-corner to Orin’s desk.

“Yes, Matt?” Orin asked.

“It’s time for the meeting.” Matt gestured over his shoulder. “Are you coming?”

Orin blinked up at him. Matt seemed to blink at the exact same time, an inkling, but nothing he could know for sure.

This was a courtesy visit; Matt hadn’t been sent there by management, they weren’t late to the meeting yet. But Orin was the youngest of the technical staff, closest to Matt’s age, so perhaps this was a gesture of friendship, a rope thrown from Matt’s ship to his.

“Oh, yeah. I’m coming.”

“You’re bleeding.” Matt gestured to the collar of Orin’s shirt.

“I cut myself this morning.” He showed the thin swipe of crimson on his finger, not exactly sure how the blood got onto his collar. “Don’t worry about it.” He groped behind him for his notebook and pencil without looking away from Matt, then they walked together to the conference room.

At the staff meeting Orin sat across the room from the intern, studying his face. He remembered Matt’s eyes as brown. Big and brown like an animal of prey. So why were they pale now? Greyish like dishwater. His mouth was different as well: upper lip thin to the point of being non-existent, dark stubble on his now-prominent chin. He felt himself mouth the words what the fuck? and at the same time Matt’s new mouth formed the same words. He shook his head, and Matt shook his, too.

A tendril of pain crept up his optic nerve and seized his eye, making him wince and clap his hand over it, shearing a yelp from his throat. All eyes in the room turned to him.

“You have something to add, Orin?” Mr. Curdy, the floor manager cocked his head and dropped the clipboard in his hand by his side.

Orin peered through bleariness, blinked rigorously in an attempt to bring the room into focus. He cleared his throat, wobbled a bit as he stood. “I, um,” he twisted his pencil between his fingers. “I think, in a teambuilding effort, we should take the new interns out to lunch today. It’s pretty nice outside,” he pointed the tip of the pencil toward the window, at the sunshine. It was high sixties, a light wind. “I think it’s a good day to do it.”

Curdy lifted his clipboard and scanned the tasks for the week, flipped the page and read a bit more. “Yeah,” he said at last. “Yeah, a long lunch would be fine today. Good idea, Orin.”

He smiled at Mr. Curdy then sat down again. He glanced over at Matt, who looked back at him with a matched gaze, and narrowed his eyes.

Orin peered through the tiny space between cubicle walls at Matt-the-intern’s back. When he got up to hit the break room for his late-morning coffee, Orin slipped in and found the intern’s ID badge lying next his keyboard. He picked it up and squinted at the picture, at the childlike, chubby face, the brown, doe eyes and whisper of hair on the chin. He peeked up over the edge of the divider at Orin, thin faced, sharp featured, eyes like a cat.

So this was it.

He pocketed the ID and went down the back stairs to the lobby. He checked his watch: 11:30. Just enough time to get back before the team went down the street to Applebee’s for lunch. He walked across the lobby to the security office. The guards always changed shifts at this time, the new guy from the morning forced on lunch until 1:30 PM. Joe, the older security guard who had been posted at this building for about ten years, often spent his time watching soap operas on a small TV at the back of the station, perking up only when he saw new people coming in through the front door on the monitors. He had a thing for Sami on Days of Our Lives.

Orin stepped in called back to Joe. “My ID got de-magged. Mind if I use your machine to re-activate it?”

Joe waved him on. “Go for it.”

“How’s your stories?”

“You know, someone’s in jail, someone’s getting married, someone’s got their face switched with someone else’s.”

Orin turned on the combination machine, printing, laminating, authenticating, and duplicated Matt the intern’s card.  He looked between the two identical cards, ran his thumb along the right side of the faces before he pocketed them both. He glanced up at the schedule board and noticed the meticulous new guy would be back on duty at 1:30, and until three pm.

Orin thanked Joe and went back up to the office, scurrying into the intern’s cubicle and setting the original ID back on the desk, scurrying out before Matt returned from the break room.

 **

Applebee’s was the perfect place to lunch. It was only a few blocks from the office, chaotic with tourists, alcohol was readily available, and the team of seven dudes was fully willing to get the interns lit up for free.

Orin sat in the booth across from Matt, studying the shifting features of his face. It had formed into something familiar now. The first time he saw this face it took Orin quite a while to recognize it. He was getting better at it now. He fingered the pencil he kept in his pocket for emergencies. Just in case.

Pain intensified again behind his right eye and he clamped a hand to it. He looked and Matt had mirrored him, his left hand to his left eye. Matt was talking to the other team members, but his eyes seemed to be fixed on Orin. Sitting straight and staring directly. Like a reflection. Orin lifted his arm out at an awkward angle and jiggled it – Matt did the same. He unbuttoned the first couple buttons of his shirt, the second-to-top first, then the top button, and watched in awe as Matt performed the same motions, at the same time.

“You okay, buddy?” Matt asked, no doubt unnerved by his staring, and Orin wondered if he mouthed the words when the intern spoke. It took him a few moments to find his voice.

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s just a little warm in here.” Orin glanced around the table to see if anyone else had noticed the mimicking behavior. It seemed no one had. “I’ll get you another shot. Jack Daniels, right?”

Turned out Matt was a lightweight. He stumbled to the bathroom twice before Orin managed to get into the men’s room alone with him and slide the lock on the main door into place. He bent to wash his hands. They were clammy, slippery, shaking from the pain that had worsened even since arriving at the restaurant. He rubbed his neck again, picking at the spot at the base of his skull. It was lightly scabbed over, tender, like something new had opened the skin up again. He looked into the mirror and stared at his pale eyes.

The pain slithered to the surface again, right up against the pupil. He reached out and touched the mirror, using his thumb and pointer finger to clasp at the slippery body of it, and his finger probed inside of him, groped for the organism, but it was too quick. It slithered back deep inside his head and clutched agonizingly tight to his optic nerve.
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He reached into his pocket and pressed his thumb to the sharp graphite point of the pencil he kept there.

Orin noticed movement, shifted his focus to the reflection of Matt turning away from the urinal and joining him at the sink. He looked over at Orin with his own eyes. With his own face.

“Hey, man,” Matt said. It was strange for Orin to hear a different voice come out of his mouth. “Thanks for the great welcoming party.” He bent over the sink and splashed some water on his face.

“Sure.” Orin moved to the paper towel dispenser and thoroughly dried his hands, working his fingers over one-by-one with the rough cloth. “Glad to have you.” He tossed the towel and put his hands back in his pockets. “Where’d you say you’re from, again?”

“Poughkeepsie. My folks still live up there.”

“Know anybody down here?”

Matt shrugged and shook his head. “Nope, not yet. Trying to get out and meet people, though.”

He kept talking, but Orin couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. The light dimmed, color faded from the room and darkness crept in from the corners of his vision. A dark tunnel formed, and the blurriness in his right eye disappeared when he focused on Matt. He narrowed his eyes and the man popped into achingly sharp focus. Orin fingered the pencil, working the sensitive pads of his fingertips against the little grooves and punctures his teeth made in the wood. He steeled his jaw against the migraine that was threatening to make him violently ill and felt a rivulet of sweat wind down his neck.

Matt paused and, through the mirror, fixed his eyes Orin. “Are you okay, man? You don’t look so good.”

Orin caught a quick glimpse of his own pale, sunken-eyed reflection before he sprang into action, thinking for a fleeting moment that Matt’s version of his face looked way better than his did right now. But he would look that way again, soon.

He moved in on the intern so fast the younger man had no time to react. Orin bounced Matt’s head off of the mirror, and when he reeled away, stunned, Orin pinned him to the ground and hovered above, glaring into the doppelganger’s face. He plucked the ID card from the intern’s chest and said, “We can’t both be me,” and the intern was too disoriented to respond.

The pain blazed hotly, threatened to shove Orin’s right eyeball out of its socket. He could feel the ache niggling around in his skull, trying to skitter away to a safe place, where he couldn’t reach it. He looked, and the creature surfaced in the intern’s eyes. His eyes. His reflection. Orin pulled out the pencil from his pocket and placed the graphite point against the delicate skin beneath his doppelganger’s left eye. “You won’t escape this time.”

 **

Orin locked his arms beneath the doppelganger’s arms and dragged him backwards, set him up on a commode and locked the stall door. Matt’s face was back, chubby and kind, but the big, doe eyes were no longer there. He clipped the new badge he made earlier in the day to Matt’s chest and set his head back against the wall. Then he climbed out from under the door of the bathroom stall.

He took a deep breath as he washed his hands. His head was clear. His face was only his, now. The spot at the base of his skull was again only a tight scar. He checked his watch: 1:15.

Orin unlocked the main bathroom door and walked back to the table, rallying the men. “C’mon, c’mon, we can’t be out all afternoon. I’ll pay the check, just get back to the office.” Reluctantly everyone got up and left the restaurant, joining the heavy foot traffic of the lunch rush outside. Orin tracked down the waitress and paid the tab, giving her a hefty tip and a warm smile. He made it back to the office at 1:25, and Joe nodded to him when he scanned the intern’s ID badge on the way in.

The new security guard studied him, and though he wasn’t yet on duty, he came around the edge of the booth and stopped him.

“What happened to you?” He pointed at blood along the collar of Orin’s shirt.

“Oh,” Orin said and presented his hand, the cut on his thumb open and oozing. “I cut myself this morning. Remember? I managed to open it again.”

The guard wrinkled his nose and turned away a little. “Yeah. Yeah, I remember. Sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Orin scanned Matt’s ID to get onto the floor upstairs. He would return to the lobby and step outside for a moment, for some fresh air, of course, in about a half hour, then scan his own ID at the door and on the floor. It would never seem as though he and the intern were together.

When Matt the intern didn’t come back to the firm the next day, everyone wondered what happened. Orin swore he saw him with the group, going back after the drunken lunch at Applebee’s, and the logs showed Matt clocked back in and out at the end of the day.

“He’s got family up in Poughkeepsie,” Orin offered. “Maybe he got homesick. He doesn’t know anyone here, I don’t think.” After a week he would be tasked with cleaning out Matt’s cubicle, and he would toss the various items the intern had accrued into a dumpster behind an Arby’s on his way home.

That night, Orin pulled the chain on the light above the cellar door and rattled his keychain until he found the right key for the lock. Once inside, he reached into his pocket and fished out the dark-slicked pencil he used to quell the creature inside him, and reclaim his face, and slipped it into a plastic baggie. He slid Matt’s ID badge inside as well, then set the bag among the others. He closed the cabinet doors and secured both pad locks to keep them shut.

Then, he sat at the workbench, plucked up a new pencil from the two-hundred-count brick he bought at Costco, and began grinding the blunt edge into shape with the old Boston KS sharpener that was affixed to the end of the metal table. As the smell of pencil shavings lulled his senses, he thought he heard something rustle inside the secured doors of the cabinet. He watched the dark slit of space between the cabinet doors as he continued to work the sharpener’s crank, and he hoped he had done enough to trap his demons inside when he locked those doors up tight.

CKS

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What’s a Rectory Without a Garden?

Father Orchid reached up and plucked a peach from the spindly tree he’d planted behind the rectory last spring. He’d scouted the spot beforehand, finding the south-facing side of the building adequately sheltered from wind though sunny and warm enough to cultivate the best fruit. Meticulously he had worked the soil, making sure it was prepared before he took the sapling peach tree from the warmth of the rectory’s sun room and planted it outside.

The tree produced peaches better than he’d hoped, the load weighing down the thin branches offering the fruit in a handful of leaves. It was a scrappy little tree but the fruit it yielded was robust, tasting of youth and vitality mixed with an aged wisdom of the earth. Juice dribbled down Father Orchid’s chin as his senses were tickled, the sun, the air and the grass all reaching out to envelop him as he devoured the peach, still sucking on the pit as he gathered more fruit and put it into a bushel basket.

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At the church bazaar he set out peach slices for parishoners to take as he manned a sign-up table for activities.  Deacon Greg stood at the table to his left helping people to pick out the correct sign-up sheets to use.  Greg was a pleasant man, as emphatic a botanist as Father Orchid, eager to learn new tricks and to share his secrets as well.

People stopped by the table and chatted with Father Orchid, picked up peach slices and savored them, humming in approval as they chewed. “How do you always grow such flavorful produce?” Mrs. Daly asked him as she approached the table, tugging the hem of her well-fitted dress low enough to be considered decent. She plucked a slice of peach from the tray and lifted it to her mouth, many bracelets jangling down her wrists as she did so.

Father Orchid waited for the involuntary expulsion of approval that came with tasting his fruit. She fixed her eyes on him and murmured mmm, mmm, mmm. He smiled at her and gestured for her to take another.

“This is decadently rich in flavor,” she said between the first slice and the second.

“Decadently rich,” Father Orchid repeated, glancing down at her shoes, the heels high and without any nicks or scratches like those of many other parishoners’ shoes.

“Yes,” she murmured as she had another bite, the large stone set into the ring on her finger catching the light coming through the door at the far end of the church hall.

“Well thank you, Mrs. Daly. That’s kind of you to say.”

Mr. Daly came up behind her and snaked a hand quickly down her hip as he took a piece of fruit from the platter as well. He was an older man, well established, wealthy on his own merit and had a barrel chest that projected his infectious laugh. He was a generous man, giving diligently to the church. “Oh, man, you outdid yourself with this batch, Father.” He finished the slice in one bite and took another.

“Leave some for others,” Mrs. Daly insisted when Mr. Daly began to reach for a third.

“You really have a green thumb, Father. I should hire you and fire my gardeners, huh?”

Father Orchid smiled and insisted he take another piece of peach. “Ah, only if I could work for free.”

Mr. Daly chuckled. “You know, you single-handedly saved our walnut tree last summer.  The gardeners didn’t know what to do. They thought the damn thing-” Mrs. Daly scolded him for cursing. He apologized. “They thought the thing was gonna die and fall on the house but my wife told you about it, you came over, and now it’s healthy as a mule and dropping nuts like an adolescent-” Mrs. Daly stopped him again. He apologized.  “You got a neon-green thumb, Father! How do you do it?”

Father Orchid leaned back, studying the Daly’s deferentially before he spoke again. “It’s all in the fertilizer. Every plant has specific deficiencies and needs, the same as any human soul. So all I do out there,” he gestured at the window, “is the same as I do in here. I try to figure out what deficiencies need attention and then find the perfect fertilizer to address them, be that a kind word or working the dirt. It feels like a natural extension of my service here to tend whole-heartedly to the rectory grounds and to other creatures living in or on the earth.” He smiled as the Dalys eased forward to murmur their thanks for extending his duty to their yard, and their beloved black walnut tree.

“I’m glad the tree’s doing well,” Father Orchid said.

“You know my head gardener, Eduardo, he left after you fixed that tree. Just up and disappeared. I know he was a deacon here before Father Gerrard moved on. Did you two get to know each other?”

Father Orchid shook his head. Eduardo had disagreed on a few basic tenants of Father Orchid’s regime, the first and foremost being that there was to be no questioning his gardening methods. The second of which was to keep those gardening methods within the confines of the church and rectory. Eduardo had consulted with Father Orchid and Deacon Greg on the care of the Daly’s ailing walnut tree. Steadfast, youthful, strong and vital, Eduardo had been all the walnut tree ever needed, and though he tended to it every day he hadn’t realized that fact. Father Orchid had seen Eduardo’s purpose right away.

“No, we didn’t know each other well,” Father Orchid admitted. “Though I have been blessed with a fine successor,” he gestured toward Deacon Greg. “But I do know Eduardo loved that walnut tree. Perhaps you should think of him whenever you harvest the fruit.”

Mrs. Daly nodded, placing one hand over her heart as she touched Father Orchid’s wrist with the other. “That is so beautiful. We’ll do that.”

Mr. Daly rapped his platinum pinky ring on the table, his customary sign of parting.  “How’s your hand, by the way?” Father Orchid asked, catching sight of the bandage on his stumpy index finger.

Mr. Daly let out his magnificent belly laugh. “It was the damndest thing,” and he apologized to the wife for cursing before launching into a story he seemed to revel in telling. Mr. Daly was the kind of man who saw every experience, good or bad, as an opportunity to pad his arsenal of anecdotes. Father Orchid speculated the worse a situation was the happier Mr. Daly would be for having lived through it. Resilient, Father Orchid categorized. That would work well in the struggle through the cold winter months. “I was in Deacon Greg’s wood-working class and I must’ve slipped or something when I was at the circular saw.” Mr. Daly made a slicing motion with his left hand as he described the incident and Mrs. Daly winced at the action. “Deacon Greg was on it quick, got me wrapped up and to the hospital. Never did find the piece that came off.”

Father Orchid nodded slightly, tipping his head to the right so he could see the deacon and Mr. Daly at the same time. “Deacon Greg is resourceful.”

“Saved my life.” He clapped Deacon Greg on the shoulder and grabbed one last slice of peach before he moved on down the line and struck up conversation with another parishioner.  Mature, well-liked, Father Orchid categorized.  He ate a slice of fruit and concluded he had made the perfect choice in Mr. Daly, adding darker complexity to the soil to counterbalance the bright youth of the peach tree.

For a moment Father Orchid looked beyond the parishoners milling around in the church hall at the wide swath of sunlight that was the open doors, heard the day calling for him and imagined the rich, dark earth gesturing to him with one finger, intertwining with the roots of the freshly-planted peach tree, beckoning him to plant more.

Mrs. Daly leaned closer to Father Orchid, drawing his attention. He could smell the perfume of her hair: honeysuckle and light jasmine, cucumber and melon.  “I apologize for my husband,” she said. “He can be bit-”

“Earthy,” Father Orchid offered.

She smiled. “Yes. But I really must say,” she rested her hand on his wrist again. “You’ve been a great addition to our little church and we are absolutely delighted to have you here.”

Father Orchid took a deep breath as a warm westerly wind pushed in through the open windows, the smell of fresh-cut grass comingling with the damp sweetness of Mrs. Daly’s shampoo and body lotion scent. His mind shifted ahead to summer and to the thorny tangle of overgrown and underutilized blackberry bushes that crept over the fence near the natural spring at the corner of church property. His eyes blazed in inspiration and he glanced over at Deacon Greg a moment as he folded both of his hands over Mrs. Daly’s. His smile grew wider as he met her eyes. “Well aren’t you exceptionally sweet,” he said, then gestured with his head over to the sign-up sheets at his left. “Don’t forget to sign up for an activity with Deacon Greg.”

CKS