Face to face with the madness in the mirror.
Puck stood with clenched fists pressed against the countertop in a high school theatre dressing room. His grey eyes, already infamous, were clenched as well, and a single tear fell into the space between his hands.
It hurt to move. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to sit, hurt to stand, even worse to scream if he could. It was Midsummer Night's Dream again, a fond farewell for their graduating Olivier - playing his namesake role for God's sake and he could hardly raise his arms. He pressed gently against his ribs with two fingers.
“Damn it,” he whispered, alternating one rib to another. Digging through his bag for a familiar rattle, he shakily unhinged the childproof lid and took a palmful of mismatched tablets. He finished off half a bottle of some gauche tap water Pepsi struck gold marketing to people who used the term 'hydrating' in the office or the mall.
He grimaced, wondering if it was just the one rib or its rather unpleasant neighbor as well.
“Twenty minutes, Puck,” called a muffled voice from the hallway.
“Fine,” he growled in return, scowling at the unkempt anger in his voice. “Thanks!”
“Give ‘em hell, sweetie.” The muffled voice seemed unperturbed. Puck was the resident Gilgamesh to their sad little teenaged Babylon.
Puck slammed the countertop hard enough for the comic bulbs around the mirror to flicker, for the bottle at his side to jump, falling over to roll in a tight circle. The construction paper sign reading William McNeill, scratched out and replaced with simply “Puck” flopped forward as the top strip of tape let go. Somewhat comforted, he slammed it again, flickering the lights, rattling the bottle and everything else that wasn't nailed down.
On their own, the lights began to blink again - once, twice, then left him alone in darkness.
They flashed on after a moment, several times brighter, far too harsh for hundred-watts. Squinting against the glare, his eyes leapt upward to meet themselves within the mirror.
What Puck saw was his reflection, but his reflection wasn't him.
Puck had always expected this, some confrontation with whatever chose to hide behind his eyes. He never knew it would be himself, staring back at him through the same grey eyes – colder, and cruel, but identical.
The creature in the mirror simply smiled. It was thinner, and smaller in stature but it...it just felt massive in that otherworldly light. As its grin grew wicked there came a flash of apathy in its eyes, the way the stars might look down on yet another back-alley murder.
Puck looked at the amber bottle, still tipped on its side. It has to be the pills, he thought. Too much of something. Nothing real could be so -
“Oh, but nothing is such a big word,” it said, chiding him. “And 'real,' he says, my oldest friend! Such a short memory, Puck.”
“What, then?” Puck demanded.
The creature picked up the pill bottle, shaking it, peering through the sides. It disapproved.
“Dr. Preston would've been disappointed,” it said. “You do know he suspected what you really are. He always was into that supernatural nonsense. But how would he explain to our parents their only son is actually a Walk-In?”
Our parents, Puck thought. Dear God, it isn't -
“So we do remember,” Will said, leaning forward, grinning his killer's grin.
Dr. Preston closed a thin file marked William Thomas McNeill, setting it aside.
“There's just no way to predict how significantly such a trauma might affect a developing young mind,” he said, lacking the headway he'd hoped.
“Mrs. McNeill, boys your -”
“Abigail,” he resumed, smiling politely. “Boys your son's age are taught about strangers, hairdryers in the bathwater, chemicals under the kitchen sink. We try to explain every imaginable danger, and all the ways to stay safe in the world as they venture farther from their parents' protection.”
“They said it can develop practically overnight,” Abigail said, accepting the preemptive tissues. “That without the epee, effy -”
“Another moment and he...”
Dr. Preston assumed his most convincing solemn expression. He despised pediatric psychiatry. But not the kids, they were fantastic. It was the parents, every damned time.
“Abigail,” he said. “We can't protect them from everything, certainly not an accident this unpredictable.”
“It was a peanut-butter sandwich,” she half-shouted.
“Countless children like William enjoy perfectly normal lives despite their allergy,” Preston said. “For now, we need to focus on the emotional repercussions that will surely manifest over the next weeks, months, maybe even years.”
Abigail walked to the window overlooking the parking area. Will sat against a chain-link fence, head down, suffering in the throes of a young boy's boredom.
“He acts like we're not even there anymore,” she said suddenly. “He hardly speaks, doesn't answer questions. If there wasn't food missing occasionally I'd never know he's eating at all.”
Dr. Preston leaned forward, opening the file again.
“Emotional extremes are normal during this period,” he absently added. “His perception of mortality has been drastically challenged, and at such a young age as well.”
He continued after scanning a few pages. “Some dissociative responses are expected. He might question a great deal of what he should already take for granted. He'll develop passing phobias, as if he's been brought into a new and worrisome world.”
Abigail began to speak but Preston cut her off. “And he'll almost certainly begin to question figures of authority in his life. That'll mean teachers, doctors...even you and your husband.”
“His father still does,” Abigail mumbled. Dr. Preston had noticed several unsettling postures, defensive postures, that Abigail had assumed whenever the family was brought up as a cohesive unit. She never spoke of – Walter, he remembered – or my husband, only his father.
“Is he safe at home, Mrs. McNeill?” Preston asked, intentionally catching her off-guard.
“Your son was dead for almost two minutes,” Preston said, forcing an emotional response. “There's even a slight chance his cognitive function could be seriously compromised - 'crazy,' Mrs. McNeill - in ways that might not be evident for years. The world will never be the same for him again without a safe and loving home, so I ask you. Is he safe? Is his father abusive? Are you?”
Abigail McNeill left without answering, gathering up her son on the way. Dr. Preston watched from inside, sighing to himself. He really despised the parents...
Will was still smiling, widening his eyes in feigned intrigue. He'd enjoyed Puck's reaction to the memory, especially the parts he'd doctored in for dramatic effect.
“You're dead,” Puck said, pointing at the mirror. “You never left that ambulance, I did!”
“Maybe I am,” Will said with a shrug. “But you...”
“You're dead!” Puck shouted, punching the mirror. It wobbled but didn't break.
“You're not even real,” Will whispered, letting his eerily cheerful facade drop. “Aren't we just the damnedest pair?”
He gave the pill bottle another shake, staring through it into the depths of memory.
“Funny feeling, you know,” he absently mumbled. “Dying and all.”
He extended a finger into his side of the mirror, pressing gently. The surface warped, and Puck stepped back slowly. Will's eyes had darkened, even the edges. As he spoke he traced shimmering patterns in the liquid mirror.
“There’s no light, Puck. No wings, no harps, no clouds. Nothing. Not for us, old friend. Just ages and ages of grey. You gave us forever, you know, coming in when you did. Without you, well I guess we'd just be fucked then, wouldn't we?”
“I didn't do this, Will.”
Will came back from his musings, putting on that awful glare, pressing harder against the mirror with his palm.
“Oh no, you just...reached in and grabbed the wheel, yeah?”
Puck began to speak but reeled instead, suffering a new wave of pain from his ribs. Will looked on, intrigued.
“Still at it, is he?” he asked, no longer sarcastic. “Bastard.”
“Yeah,” Puck managed. “Still at it.”
Will stared at Puck's chest for a moment, peering straight through him.
“Two ribs,” he finally said, almost sympathetically. “Nothing that won't heal...as well as the others have, at least.”
Puck reached for his pill bottle but Will flicked it aside with a glance.
“Let me.” Will closed his eyes and the relief was immediate. “That should get you through your last big night at least. I'm sure you'll be with Richie and Carly all night after the show.”
“You have to fight him,” Will said. “You took my chance for that from me.”
“I never took anything you hadn't already lost.”
Will's eyes went feral and several lightbulbs exploded, showering them with powdered glass.
“You blind, stupid, son of a bitch,” he snarled. “You think any of this is yours, that I couldn't drag you out in a second if I knew it wouldn't kill us both?”
“I think you would've tried regardless if you actually could,” Puck said.
“And what happens when he doesn't stop?” Will asked. “What happens, to me, when he kills you? You think your friends will always be there for you, always hiding behind Richie's money or Carly's bloodied up knuckles? He damn near killed that one kid!”
“You don't have the right to mention them,” Puck said, subconsciously rubbing the scar that one kid had given him. “They aren't yours for us to share.”
“Well look who grew a pair,” Will snorted. “And here I thought all you body-snatchers were just the emo-kids of the afterlife.”
“I'm not like that,” Puck stammered. “Not like them."
“I'm a real boy!” Will said with a brief shot of laughter. “Just remember this, walk-in. You're in my world, and my body, and I'll pull your sorry ass out if you can't manage a better mess than you've put us in...”
The lights flared so bright it left him blinded; when his eyes adjusted Will was gone. There were several missing bulbs, though, and the countertop was littered with tiny fragments of glass. Hesitantly, he reached out and placed his hand against the mirror.
“Puck?” someone asked from the doorway. He nearly squealed. “Last call was a couple of minutes ago.”
“Oh. Right - thanks...Chris?” The underclassman nodded and smiled. He's a good kid, Puck thought.
“You know,” Puck hollered after he'd left. “You oughta get out in front of the curtain sometime.”
Chris instantly reappeared. “Honestly?”
“Sure,” Puck said as they walked. “I won't be here forever, you know.”
Chris broke into laughter, just as the mirror behind them exploded. Shards of reflective glass were jammed several inches into the wall outside the dressing room door, just where they'd been standing ten seconds prior.
In one of the larger shards, Puck's eyes stared back at him, and winked. No, you won't, Will's voice whispered in his ear.
Carly stepped carefully through the backstage wilderness, watching his feet while Puck watched him from the shadows.
“Mister Carleton Brown,” he drawled. “What on Earth brings you to my unkempt calamity of a home away from home?”
“I do declare,” Carly returned. “The star of the show cavorting through the shadows with one such as myself.”
“I must admit a certain predilection toward those of nefarious character...”
Carly held out his arms and Puck accepted the hug, thankfully.
“Hey Carly,” Puck said.
“Hey you,” Carly murmured back, swaying to and fro in a rocking rhythm. “Best show ever tonight, y'know.”
“Think so?” Puck asked, honestly not as interested as he might've been elsewhere. Carly smelled amazing, and his arms were easy to get lost between.
A bare bulb above them began to flicker, and Puck looked up expecting it to burst. Carly chuckled and pulled him in again, ruffing his hair.
“I'll save you Puck,” he said, grinning. “Every time.”
The bulb flared one final time and winked out, leaving them together in the warm darkness backstage.
Word Count: 1973