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.
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.
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.