I stare at the corpse in the mirror. How desperately the dry, clay-colored skin clings to its skull. Rubbery. How narrow its tired eyes are, weighed down by the dark satchels hanging from them. How many broken vessels I could count beneath its sullen cheeks. A nebula of spider veins. A paint-splattered canvas. Children do not want to see this.
I am the owner of this dead reflection.
I think about insomnia, and how many dreams it has kept me from lately. How it chokes our brains, sending the signals between the nerve cells into a gridlock. Subtly, each of the signals starts to short-circuit. Less and less manage to squeeze out of the darker tissues we call grey matter. Life loses its high definition.
My apartment is seven stories, neighboring an abandoned furniture store. Most nights, as I lie on my springy mattress, the ceiling starts to scream. A woman’s grating voice, sinking through the studs and thin layer of drywall. I can hear her voice clearly, as though she were right next to me. She says she’s sorry. She says her job isn’t easy. She begs the other voice not to hurt her.
There are also the shrill, caterwauling sounds of cats humping in the alley below my window. Together, the screams and cat wails form a duet. A terrible sound that makes me think about Holly.
My clothes are piled on the couch. This is because there is a waterfall in the closet. The landlord says he’ll have the leak fixed soon, but has not found the time yet. I complain again to him about the screaming ceiling; he says he’ll look into it.
This morning, I noticed the brand-new car he was driving. An electric one, because he cares about the environment.
Nobody else complains about the noises upstairs. In these halls, most occupants would rather avoid attention.
Still, in bed, I look at the clock—half past one. I look back at the screaming ceiling. I look at the clock again—eight hours have passed. But when did I fall asleep?
I think about Holly, and how much I hate her.
The studio’s dressing room is wide enough to fit three to four people with their own mirror space. Lining the back wall are assorted racks of different clothes, hats, and accessories. My seated shadow pools along the dark wood flooring. God’s manufactured light shines out of the mounted bulbs lining the mirror I’m using. They reveal every imperfection, every slivered gradient of actuality. I dab the teardrop-shaped sponge and slather on another coat of foundation.
I notice three scratches on my left arm, deep grooves of missing skin. When did that happen? I shrug.
A splitting nova of pain pulses behind my eyes. Another migraine, the fifth one this week. I can feel the blood rush and pound through the mushy crevices of my brain.
I think of blood clots, wonder if one is in my brain right now, swelling like a grape made of jelly. I wonder how many people woke up this morning with a smile, utterly ignorant of the calcifying clump forming inside of them. Over time, all of our brains start to shrink. This causes the vessels that bridge the brain to be more likely to tear, dropping us into the calm, quiet depths of a coma.
I swallow a few more pills to sedate the pain.
Soon enough I can no longer see the dark satchel tints or the web of spider veins imprinted on my cheeks. They are all buried beneath a sheet of concealer. “Do whatever it takes,” my father always told me on the way to rehearsals. “Make yourself cry. Make yourself laugh. Lie to the limelight. Whatever it takes to land the part, got it?”
My father wanted to quit his job and retire early.
There it is, straight ahead, my big break.
Now, my cheeks are rosy and blushing with life. My lips are smooth and creased into a soft, cuspid smile. Once again, my skin has regained the counterfeit glow of fiction. I am no longer the corpse in the mirror.
I check the clock: call time, T-minus ten minutes.
I wrap up my time in the dressing room, applying a few final touch-ups. I’m wearing a baby blue dress shirt, slick black pants, knee-length white coat that flutters around my legs. This is the role I play. I head to the Studio Floor.
The set I reach is small, virtually utilizing every inch of space it can. The tall, temporary walls are whitish blue. Against the soft background of painted thin plywood is a metal cart. Vague, unlabeled boxes and containers line the top next to amber glass penicillin bottles. Designated spots on the walls have framed prints of anatomical skeleton art and depictions of different organ functions. In the center of the room is an examination table with pacific blue upholstery. Together, these things form a little piece of stolen space. A doctor’s office.
The set is waiting for something, a surrogate to complete the illusion of life. We call these surrogates, actors.
A nameplate is drilled on the door, in clear view of the audience, Office of Doctor Sammy.
I am Dr. Sammy, one of the “warm and welcoming” characters for our American education series, Blue Avenue. The show’s premise takes place on a fictional street in the Outer Boroughs of New York. A place where human actors and puppets come together to teach children valuable lessons. A place with no discarded heroin needles or sidewalks littered with the homeless. The show was fresh past its pilot and still trying to gain traction, far from competing with the other behemoths of the network industry.
Dr. Sammy’s role is to educate children on practicing diet, the importance of physical activity, and the ins and outs of how our bodies function. I don’t have a doctorate; I just read a lot of books.
I look over the props for today’s shoot, the medical instruments I have been graced with. Of course. The stethoscopes’ tubing is cracked. One of its white plastic ear tips is missing. More shoddy work from Holly.
Holly, the head of our props department.
Holly, the girl with the plump, fat-injected lips and distinct, broken-trumpet laugh.
Holly, the gatekeeper of information.
Holly, the one that I hate.
I’ve complained about her props. I’ve complained severely about them. They are old, worn, and falling apart. It is her responsibility to fix things like this, to feed the aesthetics with decent little lies. But Holly is a penny-pincher.
Most requests given to her about ordering new, undamaged props are met with the same candid response. Pursed lips, a few lines scribbled in her notepad, and a heavy clockwork sigh. “Sorry, that’s just outside of our budget.”
What did you write there? What was the budget actually, Holly?
She was fully aware of my dislike for her. It was what fed the trademark smirk she wore when our eyes every so often met. A cocky, patronizing smirk. An I’m-not-going-anywhere smirk.
At 8:26 AM, Holly took the bus to work.
At 9:46 PM, Holly took the bus home.
Morning and night, on the dot. The bus station she used was a few blocks from the studio. She always walked alone.
Beyond the set are the shifting, stressed silhouettes of the film crew. Clutches of them, operating no less than a military unit. Their exhausted faces dragging their fatigued bodies to complete the task. Push a button. Rig the lights. Man the cameras. They are the living cells of our make-believe organism. The Grip and Electric Cells communicate with the Key Grip Cell. That cell communicates with the Gaffer Cell. That cell communicates to the Director of Photography Cell.
They do not share the viewer’s imagination. They do not experience the magic. The cell does not stop to marvel at its work.
We used to have a larger crew before the long-curved scythe of budget cuts and downsizing trimmed the fat. Somehow, Holly managed to save her neck from it. I couldn’t help but wonder how. Perhaps she had been putting those pillowy lips to good use.
The nucleus of our design, the director, is observing the scene closely from his chair. He is a short and stocky man fancying a wiffle haircut and a Van Dyke beard. He pays his taxes, owns a yacht, fears God, vomits up peach schnapps on the weekends, and flips elderly people off when they cut him off on the highway. Just a man with a wiffle haircut.
But in this room, in that chair, he is the owner of my soul.
Our costar arrives—a petite, middle-aged woman with chestnut brown hair that rests over her shoulders. Her nose pocked with freckles, eyes big enough to make owls feel uneasy, and out of the closet since her nineteenth birthday. Between the different segments she takes part in, I often hear her in the break room talking about her trip to Punalu’u Beach, where the sand is black. She says there is no feeling in the world like dipping your toes in black sand, watching the frothy waves crawl up the dark sheet of volcanic minerals and lava fragments.
But it is not she who I am filming with this day; it is the thing in her arms.
A puppet fashioned into a pig, blessed with the name Mr. Porkpie. His black marble eyes are asymmetrical. His snout is so crooked it almost looks broken. The seams on his left ear are starting to unravel. Not enough for the camera to notice, but give it time. And of course, atop his pink felted head is a black porkpie hat. Holly designed him herself, the magnum opus of her cheapjack craftsmanship.
I wait offscreen, out of sight while Mr. Porkpie is positioned on the examination table, his handler seated behind it.
The studio lights flare up on their fixtures, bright and all-seeing. They leave amorphous blotches beneath my eyelids every time I blink.
I think about celluloid burning and bubbling into a widening anus on the projector screen.
Here it comes, another wave of jagged, pressurized pain; more blood trying to pump through the tight veins in my head.
“Quiet on set,” the Assistant Director Cell yells, followed by “Sound ready?”
The Sound Cells reply.
The Camera Cells reply.
“Roll sound. Roll camera.”
“Marker,” the Clapper Cell says as he clacks the film slate.
Then Mr. Director, the owner of my soul, yells, “Action!”
The scene begins with Mr. Porkpie rubbing his cloven pig fingers over his sizeable pink belly. He heaves a heavy sigh.
I step into frame, a clipboard pinned to my side. “Hey there, Mr. Porkpie.” My voice is cheerful, raised to an authentic Dr. Sammy octave.
“Hi Dr. Sammy,” Mr. Porkpie replies pitifully.
“You aren’t looking so good. Is something wrong?”
The piggish head shakes and then replies in a bubbly, southern accent, “I reckon there is, Doc. I ain’t feeling too good today.”
My face molds into a worried expression. “Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that. What do you say we figure out what is going on?”
“That’d be mighty fine right now.”
I bring out the stethoscope, trying to hide the cracked piece of tubing with my thumb. The part of aural tube with the missing earpiece presses uncomfortably against my eardrum. “All right, we are going to start off with checking your heart.”
“Is it going to hurt?” Mr. Porkpie asks.
“Not at all, remember that doctors are just here to help you,” I say and press the diaphragm against Mr. Porkpie’s chest. There is no pulse, nor will there ever be. “Sounds good,” I nod as I bring out the wooden tongue depressor. “All right, say ah,” I tell him.
Inside the felt of Mr. Porkpie’s mouth is a bent piece of plastic that creates a hinge for his upper and lower jaw. “Ahh,” he says, opening his mouth.
I press the wooden tool atop his non-existent tongue. “Perfect, now let’s check your ears.”
“Is this going to hurt, Doc?”
“Not one bit!” I place the speculum tip of the otoscope into each of his floppy ears.
I think about accidentally catching the loose seam and accidentally tugging his ear off. Oops, did that hurt? Sorry, Holly.
Lastly, I bring out the reflex hammer. The handle has been bent since the day it arrived at the studio, most likely from poor shipment handling.
Holly said it was hardly noticeable. “Just hold it like this,” she says. “See? It is perfectly fine.”
No Holly, it’s far from perfect, much like yourself. You’ve made a mistake.
“No way,” Mr. Porkpie says, “that is going to hurt, I just know it!”
“I promise that it won’t, okay?”
“Aw shucks, all right.”
Lightly, I strike his kneecap. From behind the examination table, an unseen wire is pulled making his leg jerk upward.
I scratch my chin with a puzzled look on my face. “Hm, nothing seems to be the problem. What does not feel right?”
Again, Mr. Porkpie rubs his cloven hoof hand over his stomach. “I was just having me some lunch, and my stomach started hurting somethin’ bad.”
“What were you eating?”
“D’aw, just what I always eat: ice cream, pizza, hamburgers, soda, chocolate.”
“And how many pieces of fruit or vegetables have you had today?” I ask with a raised eyebrow.
Mr. Porkpie looks down. He makes a prolonged “Hmm . . .” sound and then shrugs. “I can’t think of any.”
I cross both of my arms and shake my head disappointedly. “Mr. Porkpie, what have I told you, you need to practice healthier eating habits.” For a moment, I can hear echoes of my mother in my voice.
Mr. Porkpie sighs, or rather, the woman currently fisting him, sighs. “It’s not fair, Dr. Sammy, I should get to eat the food I want!”
“You can, Mr. Porkpie.” I pat his shoulder and explain. “But that stomachache you’re feeling is what happens when you’ve overdone it. It’s okay to eat your favorite foods, as long as you also consider moderation. Your body, and also mine, need a healthy dose of certain food groups to keep it strong and healthy.”
“Aw, I don’t know any other foods to eat. Where do I even start?”
“Allow me,” I say as I disappear momentarily and return with a large chart. Printed over it is a large pyramid of the major food groups. Together, Mr. Porkpie and I discuss each of the sections and the importance of each of them.
I can hear myself talking, the lines leaping flawlessly off my tongue like a fleshy conveyer belt of words, but my mind has already started to drift.
I think about the woman who lives three doors down from me. On my way to the stairs, I always pass by her door. This morning, she was already on her way out with her son. Clasped between his small fingers was his mother’s smartphone. From the phone’s small speaker, I hear a familiar voice—my voice, no, Dr. Sammy’s voice. The child was watching an episode of Blue Avenue, his eyes affixed to the device full of light and infinite voices. His mind full of web-like strands weaving into simple, rudimentary thoughts of wonder and curiosity.
“. . . The second step on the pyramid is for proteins, like meat, fish, and eggs. Protein, Mr. Porkpie, will help power your body with essential nutrients . . .”
His mother glances at me for a moment and then looks elsewhere.
Of course, why not?
At that moment, I am not the face with the golden grin or well-chiseled thoughts planting ideas in her child’s brain. I am the man who lives three doors down. The one who doesn’t talk to anyone. The one with the eyes devoid of sleep and cheeks blooming with spider veins. The one who hates the name, Holly. The corpse behind Dr. Sammy.
“. . . Next, we have the fourth step, specifically for fruits and vegetables. These foods fill our bodies with plenty of vitamins and minerals. Doctors, and I do mean myself, recommend you to eat these up to five times a day. Your body will thank you.”
“I want my body tuh thank me!”
I think about her child’s future. What does he want to grow up to be? Will she support his dreams? Or is he merely a vessel to fulfill her own goals? Get rich, become famous, now your turn to take care of Mommy.
My father wanted to smoke on private jets.
He wanted to eat expensive foods, host snobby fancy parties, and die blissfully slowly in a mansion overlooking the ocean.
His child was the key to this, the secret solution to his hard, hard life. Surely, if he could shape his little boy into the next big sensation, his dreams would be met.
What did I want to be when I grew up? I can’t remember. How many of my dreams were fed to the acting bug? Stuffed down into its infinitely greedy throat. All the forced theater classes. All the sleepless nights memorizing scripts. All the judgmental eyes burning smiles into you. All the things cameras conveniently never saw.
It will never be enough. Lie to the limelight.
I think about grabbing something, digging my fingers into the bundle of pink that is Mr. Porkpie’s throat. I think about holding him down against the examination table. I think about the bright glint of the knife in my hand.
There is sound, a wet muffled thump as the silver sinks between the pink folds. I can feel my ribs rattle from the chaotic pulses leaving my heart. Another sound—a sharp gasp. Quiet, please.
I feel Mr. Porkpie try to push me. A few sharp nails hook into my left arm. Pointless.
Deeper still, the knife pushes further, separating more of the yielding layers. I grip the buried handle and force it to slide downward. A straight seam down the chest, splitting through the stubborn fatty tissues. Rich metallic smells fuse with the air. Blood bubbles out of the newly open cleft. We’ve struck oil, hallelujah!
I pull apart the grisly flaps of the cavity and reach inside. So many new textures, a hidden world of membranes and matter in its most raw form. I explore deeper, squeezing past the feel of slender curved ribs. Within the meat of fibrous strands, my fingers reach the stomach. I pull and tug a few times until it is coaxed out of its moist, gleaming nest.
I hold it—the ugly, swollen thing—up for the cameras to see.
“All right kids,” I say with a Dr. Sammy smile, “this is a pig’s stomach. It can hold up to eight pounds of food. Why don’t we open it up and take a peek inside?”
Now that’s educational.
Now that’s television.
I think about all the questions being wafted around the studio lately. The sort of questions that are starting to annoy me.
Where’s Holly been?
No idea. I punch the knife through another persistent sheet of muscle. Dark, dribbling streaks stain the blue upholstery. Every excavating stroke reveals a new, undisturbed territory of connective tissue. Something splits in half. Intestines, most likely.
Has anyone seen Holly?
Can’t help you there.
I reach back into the newly open doorway of flayed flesh, this time pulling out a kidney. I hold the dripping, oversized bean-like thing in my hand like one holds an apple. Then I start squeezing. I squeeze it until it pops like a party decoration filled with wet, crimson confetti. Some blood catches on my cheek, mixing with the sweat in runny red tendrils.
I blink—two, three times. It all comes back: The bright, throbbing lights. The vibrant dose of pain behind my eyes. The face of the director staring daggers into me.
“Dr. Sammy?” Mr. Porkpie asks, bobs his head, and then asks again, “What’s next?”
My cheeks contract and lift, constructing a tender smile, “Sorry about that Mr. Porkpie, let’s continue…”
The scene finishes with Mr. Porkpie learning an important lesson and Dr. Sammy wishing him—and the audience—luck with their eating habits.
After one other reshoot (just for good measure), Dr. Sammy’s segment is over for the day.
I leave the Studio Floor and head back to the dressing room. On the way there, a tight, acidic knot forms in my insides.
I stop by the break room to put something on my stomach.
There is nothing left, a graveyard of stained plates, dirty silverware, and food containers still lining the tables, mockingly empty.
Picked clean. Never enough to go around. All because of Angela, our sole caterer.
Refreshments were served on her time, her dime.
It was no coincidence that food was readily available when particular people wanted it to be. Angela’s hand-picked favorites.
Any soul kept out of her nepotistic ring went hungry.
I’ve complained about the favoritism. I’ve complained severely about it. Still, her bias is kept plump and consistent.
I think about Angela, and how much I hate her.
Michael Paige is a novelist and short story author, as well as a frequent contributor to the horror/thriller community. Visit his website at https://michaelpaigeblog.wordpress.com/