Mariana lay with her head off the edge of the bed, hair dangling nearly to the floor, and imagined how much cocaine she could buy with twenty thousand dollars. That’s how much the greasy-basement-dwelling-troglodyte offered for a first printing of Between the Folds of Our Time by Alistair Tinks. Tinks. Dinks. Finks. Snip-snap-snout with the business end of a razor blade, bye-bye tracking strip, hello blow. Or maybe a car and a couple tanks of gas. Go home. Right. Not fucking likely. Mariana giggled.
“What? What’s funny?”
Mariana lifted her head—too fast—and felt the blood shift around her skull. What was this guy’s name again? Barry? Larry? Lance? Jesus, he was like twelve years old, looking like he’d just been potty-trained and wearing his tighty-whities. It was getting old—she was getting old. Too old to hang out in a college town and pick up twelve-year-olds from the bars. Or college freshmen. She giggled again.
“C’mon…let me in on the joke,” Tighty-whities whined.
Mariana crawled across the bed. One hand rubbed his chest while the other slipped down the front of his underwear. “Don’t be a child,” she said, still smiling.
Twenty thousand was a lot of fucking money.
Mariana had no giggles in the morning, but she had plenty of light. Bright, fluorescent tracks of light in the basement of the public library, the sorting room for new books to be cataloged and interlibrary loans—the nerve center for rare books, her two-time payoff, now about to be a third. She’d worked at the library since dropping all fifteen hours during the fall of her second freshman year—how long now? Ten—no, eleven years.
Maybe she’d take the car after all. A used car with lots of miles and a little traveling coke.
Mariana rubbed her throbbing forehead and slid into the black office chair in front of her terminal. Three women worked in the basement. Mariana often joked that Fat Pat and Dixie must have each eaten a few volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, an explanation for both women’s extra-large size and obtuse vocabulary. Bother were ancient too, with pale, tissue-paper skin which could only be cultivated under the special lighting in the book bunker. The book ward. Security stronger than a nursery in a hospital.
“Morning Mary,” Fat Pat mumbled. “It appears we have a new Follet shipment today.”
Mariana nodded. Fat Pat always called her Mary. Like it was okay to call her Mary because Mariana was the age of Pat’s oldest fatling. In a family photo on Pat’s desk, only two members had one chin a piece, and they were the in-laws. Mary my ass, Fat Pat.
“Follet. Check. I’ll enter them after I handle this inter-library loan.” Mariana held up a request, a forged request from a dummy account. The book, Tinkie-Dink’s Time Whatsit waited in a padded envelope, sent from a library in South Dakota. How a dusty old tome of metaphysical nonsense ended up in South-freaking-Dakota was beyond Mariana’s imagination. She held her breath. The last rare book she’d liberated had been two years ago for a sum of five hundred bucks, and the damn thing nearly cost the job. But twenty grand? She couldn’t pass it up. Chance it.
Fat Pat stopped in front of Mariana’s desk. After a glacial moment, she nodded. “Right. Inter-library loan. I’m somewhat surprised people do that anymore.”
Mariana nibbled her lip. Move on, Pat, nothing to see here. Once Fat Pat lumbered away, Mariana sliced the padded mailer open, and pulled out a small, nearly flat cardboard box. A manuscript box. Really small. Working carefully, she cut tape holding the box closed, folded back the flaps, and lifted the precious cargo. Brown cloth cover. Gold foil embossed title: Between the Folds of Our Time. The name, Alistair Tinks, was pressed into the brown cloth under the title.
Twenty grand. Really? This book had like eighty pages, max. Mariana laid the loan order to one side and opened the back cover to search for the barcode. Every loaned book from a sister library had one, and with a little razor work and a liberal application of misdirection, she could manage to check out the book in a hapless patron’s name while hiding the real, untraceable object in her bag at the end of the day.
The aluminum handle of the knife chilled her hand. Snip, snap, snout.
Mariana walked from the library; she walked everywhere the bus wouldn’t take her now, after her rust-skirted Cavalier gave up its proverbial ghost back in August. On the walk, she passed Dumpster Dave, one of the local itinerants, a thin, sun-baked man who wore a sheet like a toga and carried a plastic doll he called “his dear one.” He hunkered at the open mouth of an alley. His ghostly blue eyes watched her, followed her.
“Just borrowing. Just borrowing,” he said and laughed.
Mariana shivered. Crazy old homeless guy. Doesn’t mean a thing.
“She’s coming for a visit. Just a little visit. A borrowed visit.”
The messenger bag, tan canvas with one latch torn free, leaned on her shoulder like it weighed a million pounds, like the book of eighty pages had been crafted of pure gold with lead covers for effect. She scurried away from the alley, holding her breath until traffic noise swallowed Dumpster Dave’s laughter.
The basement dweller with deep pockets, Wayne he called himself, lived in a legitimate basement, the lower apartment of an old corner house in the student ghetto. She circled the house on a stone path and found the door, just as he’d described. Wayne’s doorbell flickered. It was one of those buttons with the soft orange glow from inside, but instead of soft and orange, it flickered like a raw ball of electricity. Mariana’s finger trembled as she raised it.
Go on. Twenty grand.
Her finger touched plastic, and the door opened almost simultaneously.
He must have been watching. Freako.
“You have it?” A security chain cut his face into two halves. The streetlight from the corner lit his thin lips and small, dark eyes. “The book?”
Mariana patted the bag, hoping they could finalize the deal without bothering to remove the security chain. Wayne’s world was one she didn’t need to visit. “Safe and sound.”
The door slammed shut. Mariana’s heart dropped, but skipped to life again as the door popped open.
She swallowed her breath and crossed the threshold.
A large, flat-screen computer monitor glowed from the opposite side of the room. Along with a small desk lamp, it provided the only light. Wayne’s apartment smelled odd—a combination of questionable male hygiene, sweat, an almost fungal odor, stale pizza, and something she didn’t want to identify as urine. It probably was urine. The room was warm, too, far above the comfort level for forced air heat. Maybe Wayne grew things in his basement lair. Maybe he had pet lizards. A ticking noise filled the dead space between her first footsteps into the basement and the moment her eyes adjusted to see more than the glow at the opposite end of the chamber.
Drawings and handwritten equations had been tacked, taped, or stapled to almost every inch of available wall space, along with several articles which looked like they’d been clipped from newspapers or printed from the internet. The walls were completely covered, except for a large mirror next to the computer. For a moment, and perhaps her eyes played a trick, the mirror seemed to reflect another, almost twin mirror which must have been leaning against a half-wall which divided the room.
“It’s not much,” Wayne said, and in so doing, dragged Mariana’s attention from the mirrors.
“But it’s home, right?”
Home for the hopelessly insane. He was even wearing an X-Files shirt. Who wore a fucking X-Files shirt anymore? What were the chances this guy even had the twenty grand?
“Can I see the book?”
Mariana’s hand stopped on the flap to her bag. Inside, she felt like shaking. She thought she might shake until all her bones came loose and fell to the floor in clumps. Her fingers tightened on the canvas. “Can I see the money?”
Wayne blinked. His thin lips became thinner. In the dim light, his skin almost glowed, like a bauble on one of those deep sea fish. Or a cave dweller with translucent skin. Mariana fought the shiver which accompanied the thought.
He grumbled across the room and began opening desk drawers. Mariana took a few steps closer. This odd specimen held her attention the way a car accident or murder does when it features on the evening news. Her left hand hadn’t left its station at the top of her bag. Without thinking, she stepped close enough to the mirror to catch a flicker of reflection and uttered a tiny squeak.
“Nothing. Just the…mirror. I guess I wasn’t ready to see myself.”
Wayne moved in front of her to block the reflection. He pushed out one hand. He clutched a small manila envelope between his wormy fingers. “All here.”
Mariana didn’t look at the envelope. She tilted her head for another glance at the mirror, and then turned to see her reflection from the knees up in its partner. The effect of low lighting in the mirrors cast odd, angular shadows, almost like some kind of still shot from a German Expressionist film when Mariana had studied such things. A strange line—a shadow—curved under her neck, almost like her head wasn’t connected. The reflection smiled. Was she smiling?
“The money,” he said.
“Why do you have these mirrors?” Mariana asked, turning away from the one to which she had an unobstructed view.
“The money,” he repeated. The envelope shook in his hand.
She took it, suddenly feeling the urge for a good line of coke and a hot shower. What the hell was she thinking, coming to this sideshow-freak’s apartment? Library aide raped and mutilated by local rare book collector, film at eleven. Her left hand, working its own agenda, began undoing the one working clasp on her messenger bag. Mariana’s eyes were behind Wayne, trying to find the eyes of the other reflection.
“Aren’t you going to count?”
“Count. The money. It’s all there. In five-hundreds and one-hundreds. I wasn’t going to get in smaller bills.”
“What’s wrong with your mirror?”
Wayne’s lips bled into one black line.
She held out the book. “The mirrors are off a little. Aren’t they? I don’t understand the shadows from the lamp you have over there…” she raised the envelope toward her cheek.
Wayne snatched the thin book, flipped it open and ran his pale fingers down the page. “Oh…perfect. This is just perfect.”
“Your mirrors, what—”
“Psychomancy. Doorways and connecting points between dimensions. We live in a wondrous multiverse.” Wayne smiled, and even in the dim light his teeth showed their yellow hue. “Tinks was a genius on the subject, well ahead of his time. He theorized such—”
“No psycho-whatever, I’m talking about your mirrors. Why do I have this, this shadow under my chin?”
Wayne pushed her, shoved her toward the door. Mariana nearly dropped the envelope of cash as she staggered backward.
“You’ll have to go now,” he said. “Go away. Leave.”
And before she felt the damp autumn cold, the door slammed shut. A fast, metallic clicking told Mariana she was locked out. In the open air, the strange, off-kilter sensation she’d felt in front of the mirror melted away. Wayne the cave-dwelling troglodyte locked himself away from the rest of the world, as he should. The weight and reality of twenty-thousand dollars in cash planted a smile on her lips.
Time to celebrate.
Mariana wasn’t sure which was better: the sharp euphoria of snorting a quick line when she arrived at her apartment, or the knowledge that she could get the fuck away for a while; at least a little vacation—more than she’d managed in at least five years. The library job and a few loose dollars slipped from the wallets of unsuspecting one-night-stands kept her fed and relatively happy, but she needed a break. An out. Maybe she would buy that car and head for home. Carol wouldn’t be happy to see her, but the old bitch was going to kick off soon, anyway.
Dad would welcome his little prodigal daughter with open arms and open bank account.
Maybe it was time to stop working the scene like she was still twenty-one.
The shower felt good, hot water massaging her skin, but when Mariana stepped out to grab her towel, the reflection in the mirror stepped out, too. The mirror hadn’t fogged as usual.
“Jesus.” Mariana clutched the towel to her chest. “The fucking mirror.” She poked one finger to the smooth surface, expecting a damp layer on the glass. It was cold and smooth and dry to the touch, and a small, almost electric pop shot through her hand and wrist. Mariana closed her eyes. Her synapses fired a barrage of images. A black line cut across the Wayne-basement-Mariana reflection—right at her neck. Mariana’s hand touched her throat.
“Gotta lay off the junk.” She tried to smile. “My brain’s playing tricks.”
But no, the mirror wasn’t right. Not her mind. The mirror. She pressed her whole hand against the cold smooth surface. The tingles tripped up her arm, into her chest, and down her ribcage. She dropped the towel and stared at her naked torso. Not a spring chicken anymore, dear. Her breasts sagged a little, no longer quite the pert, firm handful they used to be. Still nice, though. Not old lady boobs. Mariana smiled.
Her reflection didn’t—not at first. There was a delay. Wasn’t there?
Psycho-whatsist. Something about mirrors. Wayne was a weirdo and loser.
Mariana toweled off, dressed in a pair of hip-hugging jeans and t-shirt as tight as a second skin, and carried her bedroom mirror, the small, square one which usually leaned from the top of the dresser to her bedroom wall, into the bathroom. The towel rack sat at the right height for Mariana to see both mirrors at the same time, and in so doing, a whole receding flood of Marianas in the echoes.
Nothing. No black line. Nothing out of the ordinary. The dim light in Wayno-draino’s basement dungeon had tricked her. She flicked the bathroom lights off. There was enough ambient glow from the bedroom for her to see the reflection—the reflection and something else behind her. Mariana jumped back, waving her right arm behind her like a small child might have chased bees off its back. The bottom of her fist struck the edge of the small mirror, and it tumbled to the floor, shattering with a quick, sharp crack.
“Jesus. Psycho-whatever, I’ve lost my mind…”
She stooped and picked up the biggest of the fragments. One eye stared back at her. It winked. A tiny sound squeaked from Mariana’s open mouth, and she dropped the glass which fell and broke into tiny, glittering bits as it struck the tile. A bead of blood appeared on her thumb. Mariana shoved the wounded member in her mouth and sucked.
Psychomancy, right? Mancy…mancy…seeing. Wayne the social drain said something about doorways and connections…
Mariana plopped into her desk chair and wiggled the mouse connected to her ancient Dell, a relic from her college days, stubborn and slothful at best. She pounded the keys, and Google’s homepage stared back at her.
The first link, an article from Wikipedia, described psychomancy as communication with the dead. Communication with the dead. Mariana blinked. Frost covered her skin. Wayne’s dark basement flashed in her memory. The articles posted to the walls. Equations…the mirror. She scanned further. Mirrors were often used in communications with the dead. Her cut thumb throbbed. A black mark marred her reflection in Wayne’s basement. Doorways and connections.
“Psychobabble,” she muttered.
Alistair Tinks was her next search. Only twenty hits—was that even possible online in the 21st century? His Wikipedia article was brief, just a few lines, headed with the disclaimer: This article cites no credible sources. Alistair Tinks was an 18th century scientist interested in the possibility of alternate universes, what he called folds. He theorized each fold could hold other versions of oneself, even those who had died in their own time.
Cuckoo X-Files business.
“Well Tinks my boy, you aren’t much of a popular fellow, are you?”
She stepped into the bathroom, flicked on the light, and stared, briefly, at her reflection. Fine. Just fine, but the frost wouldn’t leave her skin. She wrapped a bandage around her cut, but didn’t stoop to pick up the fragments. A good drink, that’s what she needed. With her coat clutched in one hand, she stepped onto the porch, slammed the door, and hurried toward the street.
She needed a drink. That’s all. A drink and maybe a good fuck.
The Crow’s Nest rumbled with bodies, most of them sweaty young men in their early twenties, ex-frat boys and fifth year seniors trying to squeak through their college years and find a steady job with a house in the suburbs and two-point-five kids on the other side. But for now, they were hunting, drunk and horny, and Mariana was more than happy to be the target of the hunt. The Crow’s Nest was that kind of bar.
She ordered a beer and found a seat at a tall table near the back wall. A girl alone didn’t stay alone long, and within five minutes, while she nursed her drink, two thick, scrub-faced specimens with slick, shiny hair joined her.
Mariana smiled. Either one would do the job. Maybe both.
“So, you waiting on someone?”
“Me?” Mariana asked, playing the game.
The men exchanged a glance.
“Yeah. Are you waiting for someone?” asked the taller of the two.
“Nope. Just having a drink.” Her eyes fell to her glass. “Trying to be social.”
The taller of the two smiled and slid onto one of the empty stools. “This is Nick and my name’s Barry.”
“Hi,” Nick said.
Barry folded his hands on the table. “Mariana…that sounds familiar.”
Nick nodded. “Yeah. It was that story, English 510. The author was—”
“Fritz Lieber,” Barry finished. “That’s right.”
English majors. Good. “Oh, I’m the star of a story?”
Barry smiled. His perfect teeth sparkled, even in the dim light. “Right. Nick and I are English ed majors. Sci Fi was the only open 500 level when we enrolled this spring.”
“A science fiction story.” Mariana sipped her beer.
“You remember what happened, Nick?”
“Wasn’t that the story with the buttons?”
“That’s right.” Barry rapped the tabletop with his knuckles. “The buttons.”
Mariana leaned forward. Her red nail polish glittered. “Buttons?”
“Yeah.” Nick nodded. “She—Mariana in the story—pushed these buttons and things disappeared. Trees…her husband…”
“He was a prick,” Barry interjected.
“And then she made the house go. Then—”
“By pushing buttons?” Mariana squirmed.
“And the last button had her name on it.” Nick scratched his chin.
“What happened then?” Mariana asked. “What happened when she pushed the button?”
Nick shrugged. “That was the end of the story…right Barry? It was like she was just borrowing a life. Like it was all fake.”
Barry stood up. “You want another drink? You too, Nick?”
“I’ll go with.”
Both moved into the crowd, promising to return momentarily. Mariana’s eyes followed them to the bar and then walked up toward the mirror behind the bartender. Psychomancy. The room spun. She felt it behind her eyes, like a headache, but solid and sharp and quick, as though someone had punched her in the forehead. Suddenly, she wanted to vomit. Her nose burned. The room smelled of urine and sweat and beer, yeasty and rank. Barry and Nick moved in slow motion, their heads bobbing as they talked. Dark lines moved across their necks. Mariana couldn’t see their faces in the mirror, not from that angle.
It was suddenly too hot in the bar. She grabbed her coat and started for the door, leaving Nick and Barry and a nearly empty pint glass on the table. Air. She needed air. Barry called out as she left, saying her name—it was probably her name—but Mariana tumbled into the cool night air before she took a breath.
For the second time that evening, Mariana found herself walking toward Wayne the basement dweller’s apartment. For the first time she felt real fear rather than mild discomfort and a sense of anticipation. It had grown cold, and few cars were on the streets, even in the student ghetto. Finals were approaching. Finals and winter. She used to be on that schedule, but not anymore. Not for years now. Mariana tried to think hard about school and her favorite classes while she walked, anything to chase the black specter in her broken mirror from her thoughts.
Wayne’s door stood in front of her, his windows dark. She caught her lower lip under her teeth. Ignoring the doorbell, she rapped her knuckles against the faux wood, and her heart echoed the sound. One…two…three…she made the count of thirty before knocking again, and during the waiting time, her eyes adjusted enough to see a dull glow from one of the windows.
The computer, or the lamp. “I know you’re in there,” she said, and pounded with the base of her fist. Nothing. No response. Both front windows were covered with curtains on the inside, but Wayne’s apartment, being the walk-out basement portion of a house chopped up for apartments, had smaller, recessed windows on the sides. Mariana scrambled up the grassy embankment and slipped. Her knees slumped to the damp earth.
“Shit,” she muttered, brushing off the mud from her jeans. When she lifted her eyes, there was a window, no curtain. She moved closer to the window, but because of the well and recessed window, she couldn’t touch the glass. Wayne was visible inside, at least part of Wayne – his upper body in front of the computer. Mariana groped on the ground and found a stick just long enough to reach the glass.
“Come on over, you weird bastard,” she said. Tap, tap, tap.
Wayne turned. He must have heard her. She tapped again. He stood up and moved, slowly, closer to the window. A few of his equations were visible—bits of paper tacked to the walls. She fell back a little as his face suddenly appeared. Despite how dark he kept his basement lair, it was still brighter than the yard outside. Wayne shielded his eyes with his hands, and a spasm jerked his cheek. His face vanished.
Mariana scrambled down the incline to the concrete patio behind Wayne’s apartment. The door rattled and opened, slightly. Wayne’s pinched face appeared in the crack.
“Psychomancy. Why did you need the book? Tell me about psychomancy and Tinks.”
“You have a computer. You looked it up earlier tonight.”
Mariana’s heart fell. Wayne’s words scooped out her internal organs and left a block of ice in their place. “You…my…how did you?”
A smile blinked on Wayne’s face, but his thin lips quickly sank into a flat line again. “You’ve done something else, too. Haven’t you? I saw her…earlier…when you were in the basement. In the mirror. Oh shit. You let her in?”
“I broke a mirror…” Mariana’s tongue swelled in her mouth.
“You did. She’s here, then.”
“Who is it?” Mariana pleaded. “Who? Tell me what the fuck this is all about.”
“Go away. I’ve paid you. Any other mistakes you’ve made, well…those are your mistakes now. Your mistakes, not mine.” The door slammed shut.
“Mistakes? What the fuck are you talking about, you weird bastard?” She asked the question, but the door did not answer. Mariana curled her hands into a pair of tight fists. Knock the door down. Make him explain. After a hot moment, the fists melted, and she shook out her fingers. Her head wagged back and forth. It was late already, the bars would close soon, and she was cold. Too cold to stand outside with her body turned to ice and too cold for a return trip to the Crow’s Nest.
Home. Mariana shivered. Wake up tomorrow and leave. Take the money.
The library lay between Mariana’s apartment and Wayne’s place. She half-entertained the idea of circling around, but it was cold and nobody would be in the library, anyway. Was it fear talking? Somebody was going to catch her and force the return of the supremely rare book, the bizarre little book written by the excessively bizarre Alistair Tinks, an author, if the lack of web hits indicated anything, without much of a following…
Shadows crowded her on New Hampshire Street. A car honked two streets over. Was it always this dark? The inky blackness grew a pair of hands. Dumpster Dave staggered out of his alley.
“She’ll want a piece of yours now. Just to borrow…” His simian features scrunched together to form a caricature of a man. The shadows dripped from his chin.
Mariana froze and clutched her purse handle until her fingers felt like they might snap. “Stay away.”
Dumpster Dave laughed. “Just borrowing?”
The book. The crazy bastard.
“Leave me alone,” she said again, her voice warbled and broken. “Leave me alone.”
Dumpster Dave lurched forward. She could smell him, all shit, sweat, and garbage, disgustingly sweet and sharp. Ten feet away. Mariana fumbled in her purse and found the mace. She held it in front of her chest like a shield.
The homeless man stopped. “She’ll want a piece of yours, sweetie. Just a piece. A borrowed piece.”
“Who?” The arm attached to the hand holding the mace stiffened like a rod of iron.
“The other one. The dead you. The other.”
“Leave me alone!”
“They’ve taken my stuff, too. You’re just like me. Pushed aside…cast off…”
“Fuck you,” Mariana squealed. Without consciously sending the message to her fingertips, she pushed the button. Blink. Spray leapt from the tiny bottle and Dumpster Dave howled. Mariana, like in the story, disappeared, but in the real world the heels of her boots struck and scraped the damp asphalt as she sprinted across the street. There was nothing save the inferno of her heart and the fading laughter of Dumpster Dave, a jagged cackle like the sobbing of an old woman.
Mariana didn’t stop until she’d reached her apartment. Her fingers shook. Dumpster Dave’s clopping feet weren’t far away. Kick the bastard in the nuts next time. She pushed a hand in her bag, seeking the key ring. Her other hand held the mace. No key. The doorknob burned her hand with its cold metal skin when she tried it. Locked solid.
The money was still inside.
She knelt and pulled up the welcome mat. The extra key was gone…or had she forgotten to replace it? Her eyes snapped shut.
The other one…the dead you…all the others.
“He’s a crazy old man,” she muttered.
The outer wall of the apartment building held two windows, one in Mariana’s living room and the other in the bedroom. She hurried, feeling the laughing presence of Dumpster Dave in the dark corners across the street. Her fingers pushed against the cold smooth glass. Each of the windows was locked tight from the inside. He’d follow, and then, and then…
Break a window. Get inside. Call the cops.
Mariana hurled her tiny bag against the window. Nothing. She bit her lip. Her shoulder dropped as she lunged into the window. She bounced back. The window didn’t yield.
The other one…
Was it Dave? She turned, panicked, toward the street. Nothing.
The dead you…
Mariana stood, shoulder throbbing, and charged the window again. The glass split with a loud crack, but it did not give. Her arm burned. She began to sob. From across the street, Dumpster Dave called out, “Maybe you’re the other one…the dead you…” Mariana thought of the dark slash across her neck and felt the cold skin. A light flicked on inside her apartment.
The money. Get the money and get out. Forget the cops.
She lowered her shoulder, ready to batter the glass again, but the face in the window stayed her.
Rotten…decomposed…bruised with eyes ringed with black. It was the face from the mirror. The other one. The dead Mariana. By the looks of her, she’d been dead for quite a while.
Aaron Polson currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit. His stories have seen print in Shock Totem, Blood Lite II, and Monstrous with several new stories forthcoming in Shimmer, Space and Time, and other publications. The Saints are Dead, a collection of weird fiction, magical realism, and the kitchen sink, is due from Aqueous Press in 2011. You can visit Aaron on the web at www.aaronpolson.net
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Illustration by Ronnie Tucker.