"Absolutely brilliant!" says Lisabet Sarai, author of Incognito and Fire, about Lambda finalist M.Christian's controversial manlove horror/thriller.
He looks just like you. He acts exactly like you. He takes away your job. He steals your friends. He seduces your male lover. None of them can tell the difference. Every day he becomes more and more like you, pushing you out of your own life, taking away what was yours … until there’s nothing left. Where did he come from? Robot? Alien? Clone? Doppelganger? Evil twin? Long lost brother? Then you discover there are still more "yous." Can you be sure you are the real you? And how do you fight to take your own life back?
An absorbing new approach to the question of identity, Me2 is a groundbreaking gay chiller you’ll remember for a long time – no matter who you are, or who you think you may be.
(Despite rumors that this book was written by an impostor - but, rest assured, this is the real 'M.Christian.' Accept no substitutes!)
"I know it happens. It happens a lot. You know it happens a lot because they say it does, and I know they don't say what they mean all the time but this time you know they ain't lying 'cause they aren't saying it enough for it to be a lie, you know? If it wasn't really true then they'd be saying it a lot, but because they ain't saying it a lot but they are saying it, so you know it's gotta be true. Right? Right? Right?
"If you use credit cards or those ATM card machine things they can get you. They got tricks and shit like that so when you do it – use them I mean – they can get it all. So you either got to not use it or not use it a lot. But even if you use it just once they can get it. They got tricks, you see? You don't know half the shit they can do. Like the chips. You heard about the chips, right? They put them in your head when you're in the hospital so that way the cops and the government know what you're up to and where you are and even what you're thinking sometimes. There was this guy who used to hang out down by that big mall, you know the one with the Saks and the Nordstrom? Not right in the head, if you know what I mean. Funny up there. Real funny, had all kinds of weird ideas about things. Nothing you haven't heard before, but he could talk about it for hours if you let him. But one day, see, he says something about the government, how he'd like to cut all their fucking throats – shit like that. But what happens is that the next day he just ain't there. Not that you want to find this guy or nothing. But still, he just ain't around no more. Thought he might have croaked, but then I thought about all the crazy shit he used to say and that he only once talked about the government, but that was the day he went gone. You know what I'm saying? You hearing me?
"But they can use that, too. They can get all kinds of shit out of you that way or other ways, and once they get it, they can steal everything you got. The numbers is what it's about. All those numbers. You forget about them sometimes, but they are there. All the special numbers that you have around you. Social Security, credit cards, shit like that, but other numbers you don't even know you have. But they know it. They know all about them. You forget, but they know. They get them and they can take everything about you. Your money, your house, your wife, your kids, shit like that. One second you got it all and then the next you got nothing. Nothing at all, man.
"But what's really fucking weird is that I also heard that they can take more than just your money and your numbers and shit like that. They're good, right? Real fucking good. So good they can take all your numbers and even everything else. Used to be this guy who hung out down by the park. Real fucked up asshole. Mean as shit, especially if he got a bottle or shit like that. Every once in a while you'd see him all fucked up, bruises and shit like that and you'd know that he'd fucked with the wrong asshole, but most of the time he'd be the one putting it out and not taking it. Then he wasn't there no more, just gone, you know? Not like that other guy, though, 'cause he shows up a week later but this time he's changed. Clean, like he'd got himself a shower, even a fucking bed or some shit. I see him, and he sees me, and he starts talking like he's my best fucking friend in the whole fucking world instead of the asshole who used to beat the fuck out of me for no good fucking reason.
"Then he starts talking about getting his act together, about finding Jesus. Fucking Jesus, can't you fucking believe it? I thought he was trying to hide, right? Like he couldn't do anything because maybe the cops were nearby or something. But then I figured that he was really fucked up. But that didn't make sense either 'cause I've seen him really fucked up and he just gets a lot meaner, you know?
"I got the fuck out of there as quick as I could. A day or so later I got it figured, though. I'm not a smart motherfucker, sometimes it takes me some time, but I get there. Someone took him, see? They stole all his numbers and shit like that, but they didn't know how to add them up yet. Got close, though. Got fucking close. But I knew him, see? I knew what he was really fucking like.
"Sure as shit a week later I see the asshole and he beats the fucking crap out of me again, but even as he does it, I know that they got it right, that they took all his fucking numbers – even the ones he didn't know he had – and he was fucking gone. Just took them some time, you know? Just took them some fucking time to get them all and use them the right way.
"That's why I got rid of all mine. Threw them the fuck away. That's why I ain't got shit. You got nothing, then you got nothing worth taking, you know?
"Nothing worth anything at all."
* * * *
Mothers with their children. Children with other children. Men uncomfortable with shopping. Old women with other old women.
The mothers with their children headed towards Baby Gap, The Baby Outlet, and Osh Kosh b'Gosh. Children with other children moved quickly towards Kaybee toys, EBgames, and the Disney Store. Men uncomfortable with shopping held their wives' purses. Old women with other old women eased toward Macy's, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale's.
Next to the mothers with their children, I could have been a husband. Children with other children. I could have been a parent or guardian. Men uncomfortable with shopping – I could have been one of them. Old women with other old women – I could have been a son or an escort.
Among them all – here and there – a pair of men who were not husbands, parents, or guardians, not uncomfortable with shopping, or sons as escorts, but I stayed away from them, even though I would have vanished completely amid the Boys of Summer or the Tommy Hilfigers. But they'd be looking for exactly that.
A sly grin. I know I shouldn't, but I did: a curl of the mouth, a twist of the lip, a scrunch of the eye: so many husbands, so many parents or guardians, so many uncomfortable with shopping, so many sons and escorts – and so many who were also not parents or guardians, who were also not uncomfortable with shopping, who were also not sons as escorts. Straight or gay, happy being in the mall or not, I might have looked like any of them, could be any of them, but I wasn't. I was alone. I was separate. I was unique.
There was only one of me – and so I had to hide among the crowd stepping into the climate-controlled comfort of the mall.
* * * *
I wasn't hungry, but I headed toward food, because some of them headed towards food. Orange Julius? Hot Dog on a Stick? Chick-fil-A? Great Wraps?
Even though I was trying not to look like I'd just headed for food because they headed toward food, I still ended up standing at the entrance of the court for way too long. Ping, zap, tinkle, twitter: my thoughts bounced from ear to ear, eye to eye, and if my mouth had been gaping open any more, I'm sure they'd have tripped over my teeth and clattered to the floor. I should go with the shoppers, strollers, walkers, and shufflers – my thoughts went – because they are average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, and I want people to think that I am also average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, but I wasn't ordinary, run-of-the-mill – or no longer anything like average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill – and being no longer average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill by doing what the average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, if doing average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill things, would I not stand out even more? But by not following the average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, wouldn’t I be clearly and obviously not average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill?
I ended up getting a hot dog on a stick. The girl behind the counter wished me a nice day, but as it was something she said to everyone, it had no meaning. Sitting on a plastic chair at a plastic table, I ate my plastic hot dog on its plastic stick and looked around the food court for any sign or pursuit or even interested examination.
After a few minutes of carefully, slowly twisting my head, I felt tightened muscles relax, my heart slow from its thudding in my chest, and my thoughts cool and slow from their spastic doubts. Not that I was safe. Not at all. Not at all. Not. At. All. But at least for the moment I was just a guy – apparently an average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill guy – sitting on a plastic chair at a plastic table eating a plastic hot dog on a plastic stick.
And not what I really was: which was alone, separate, and unique. There was a difficulty, though. There was a price, however. It was steeper than the cost of sitting on a plastic chair at a plastic table eating a plastic hot dog on a plastic stick.
How long do you sit I a plastic chair at a plastic table eating a plastic hot dog on a plastic stick? Was I eating too fast, too slow? Was I sitting in the wrong chair? Suspiciously resting my elbows on the table? My peace threatened to collapse, broken shards musically chiming to the floor, my aloneness, separateness, and uniqueness revealed to everyone in the mall food court. I didn't remember what it'd been like to be one of them, to be able to walk invisibly through life. Was my act poor? My performance doubtful?
Calm, calm, calm. Just sit in your plastic chair at your plastic table and eat your plastic hot dog on a plastic stick. When you are finished with it, then you'll get up and move away from the food court. Where? I didn't know. Trust in the flow of the tide, the camouflage of normalcy. You were one of them – well, not quite one of them ... more like two of them ... (don't laugh to yourself, that's not something the tide or the normalcy would do, even though it was kind of funny, in a weird and twisted kind of way) ... so trust in how you used to act, how you used to not worry about standing out. That's it. Calm. That's it. Relax. That's it.
For some reason I looked at what I was eating – never a good idea, especially something purchased from a wildly grinning girl in a stupid-looking hat – and caught the sight of red around the plastic hot dog on a plastic stick. Heartbeat fast again. I check out my fingers, holding them close to my chest and fanning them apart. Had I missed something?
First finger, second finger, third finger, fourth finger, thumb – no, they were all cleanly pink, all cleanly common. Calm. That's it. Relax. That's it.
But then for some reason I looked up from what I was eating – also not a good idea, especially since I was eating where people had purchased their food from the likes of wildly grinning girls in stupid-looking hats – and caught sight of a newspaper flipped up, a front-page headline in LOUD type across the chatter and clatter of the food court.
They were calling it a hate crime.
* * * *
The plastic hot dog was gone, leaving behind just the stick. A stick in the hand of an alone-appearing, separate-looking, and unique-seeming man sitting in a plastic chair at a plastic table. I'd wanted to get up, to run, to get away from there as fast as possible when I saw the headline, but had kept enough of my calmness, relaxedness, to know that getting up, running, getting away from there as fast as possible was something that an alone-appearing, separate-looking, and unique-seeming man would do – something that would attract attention, make him stand out, make suspicions arise. Not good. Not good at all.
Instead I got up and moved away from my plastic chair, my plastic table, the plastic stick that was all that remained of my plastic hot dog and carefully, sedately, leisurely moved away.
Stores scrolled by my right side, my left side. I didn't know where I was going, just as long as it was away from the food court and that LOUD headline. The Gap came up on my right and I slowed to look in the window. What I was looking at wasn't clear except that it was something someone would do while walking through the mall: a thing someone who was not alone, separate, and unique would do.
I knew I had to make plans, start to think about 'what next' but all I could do was stand in front of that window and look at innocuous colors that were part of innocuous patterns of innocuous clothes.
On innocuous manikins: I may not have noticed what they were wearing, but I did see that they were two of a kind, stamped out of the same mold, same make, same model, same manufacturer.
I didn't know who my manufacturer was, not specifically, being adopted and all. No one I could ask, either, my adopted parents being dead and all. So there was a chance that he and I had been two of a kind, stamped out of the same mold, same make, same model, same manufacturer. Long lost twin, separated at birth – that kind of thing.
I would have pondered that, tried to understand it. Researched the possible hows and whys. But instead I simply stood in front of a Gap window and looked at a pair of identical manikins and thought about how wonderful it was to be alone, separate, and unique – and how scared I was about how it happened, and scared about what might happen next.
That's when I saw the cops.
* * * *
Don't look. Whatever you do, don't look. It was bad enough to have twitched, jerked, sweated, blinked, stiffened, when that shade of blue, that way of walking, that way of scanning the crowd tickled the edge of my vision. Two of them. Man and a woman. The warbling squawk of a radio crackled through the bubbling conversation of the crowd, an announcement just in case I hadn't seen them.
The manikin's hair looked good: stylish without being flamboyant, cool without being too cool. That was what a normal person would think. That was what other people would think. That was what anyone else would think. They would not run, they would not bolt, they would not even turn and watch as the police walked up to, behind, and then past them. They would look at the display in the Gap window and think about how good they might look in the clothes, think about how nice it would be look as nice as those manikins.
They would not breathe a sigh of relief when the police were far enough past them – but I couldn't help myself. It was a soft sound, I hoped not loud enough for anyone to hear, especially not for that pair of police.
I stayed at that window for a bit longer, too long I suspected, but I didn't think I could turn, leave their calm looks behind, and become another one of the average, ordinary, average people walking through this oh-so-average, ordinary, average mall. But then I had to go, staying frozen becoming more of a risk than trying to merge back with the crowd, and so I began to walk again.
"...suspect is currently sought." I didn't get far. The Gap behind, Circuit City next. In the window, a new pair of faces. Exactly alike, just like the manikins of a few minutes before. One was my ghostly reflection in the glass, the other my face as sketched by a police artist on an HD plasma TV. Both of them the same man, both of them me. But there was only one me. Now.
* * * *
I hid in the bathroom. Luck, that it was close by: a little blue man figure next to a little woman figure with arrows pointing away from the busyness of the mall down a wide corridor lit by unflattering fluorescent lights. At the end of it were two doors, a little blue man figure on one, a little blue woman figure on the other.
In a stall, I closed a door and sat down on the john. Walking in, I'd looked around to make sure I was alone or at least reasonably so. I was. Reasonably alone, that is: a few mall shoppers were at the counters washing their hands, pissing in urinals, or no doubt inside a few closed stalls. But looking around, I'd caught a glance of myself in one of the mirrors, a flash of eyes like mine, a nose like mine, ears like mine, and hair like mine: picture of me, so very much like someone who used to look like me. Someone now dead.
I had to get out. Somewhere in the general direction of away, far away. For now, though, I just sat on the toilet and shook like I was very, very cold.
People were looking for me, the police were looking for me, but one person wasn't looking for me – and even though people were looking for me, the police were looking for me, I still managed a crazy grin through my fear, through my shakes.
A grin that was a little strange for what they called a hate crime. It was, and it wasn't. Was: because I hated myself for what I'd done. Wasn't: because I didn't hate myself for what I'd done. Was: because I'd hated that other me. Wasn't: because I was still here.
On the toilet in the mall: no idea where to go. No idea what to do. I didn't even know what to wear, how to talk, what to talk about. I used to know all of that. I used to be able to look at the people around me and know where I was, where I belonged, how to belong less or more. I was ... who I was. Now I was alone, separate, and unique.
Distantly, whispering across long miles of my mind, I thought about what might happen tomorrow, the day after, the day after that, the day after that, the day after that: a humid and hot hotel room, a tropical country, a pickup on the street, a pickup in a bar- I used to know what to look for, what would tug at my cock, but now ... what face would be looking at me before, during, and after an even hotter hotel-room kiss?
Lips to lips, he to me: a person that would never be perfectly what I wanted, because that man had been left on a sidewalk, a broken jigsaw, smashed-up pieces, or maybe a person who was perfectly what I wanted because he too had left a man on a sidewalk, a smear of blood on some other sidewalk?
Who would he be? Who had I become? Aside from a killer, that is.
* * * *
It was defense. Self-defense. Literally. He wanted me – all of me – and he was winning. He'd taken this, that, all of those, most of this, and when I even tried to change who I was, he was there to take even my new self. I didn't have a choice. Not at all. It was him or me.
Now it was just me.
Angry neon, corpse-white fluorescents, screaming advertisements. It could have been anywhere, but it wasn't: he walked out of that one liquor store, that particular liquor store, that specific liquor store. At first I wasn't sure, doubt slowing my walk but not yet stopping it. After all, he could be someone else, who just happened to be wearing what I wore, with hair styled and the same shade as mine, with my same walk, my same posture – coincidence, happenstance, a twist of fate. Not him. Not really him.
But it was him.
Bathroom to mall, mall to parking garage. Quick but not too quick: no turns of heads, no notice, no knitted brows. I was just another shopper who went straight from the bathroom to the parking garage.
It was cool. It was dark. A few late shoppers were on their way in, a few early shoppers were on their way out: to and from their cars.
I felt like I could breathe, so I did. Ragged in, smoother out. Cops were after me, sets glowed with my face, newspapers had me in black and white photos. I could get arrested, I could get shot. But for now I could breathe – so I did.
I thought that it'd be harder. Is that premeditation? I guess it is. But if you think about killing yourself – even a second self – is that just contemplating suicide?
Beyond the liquor store, the space between him and me, had been dark. Very dark: the kind of deep, fuzzy black weirdness you get in a lost corner of the city where streetlights, glowing signs, stoplights, or any other kind of brightness doesn't shine. As black as it gets.
The street had become quiet, fewer and fewer cars streaming by. Either that or I just didn't notice them anymore. Beyond the liquor store, the space between him and me, was a vacant lot. Very empty: the kind of deep, fuzzy, empty weirdness you get in a lost corner of the city where houses, buildings, stores, or any other kind of structure doesn't exist. As vacant as it gets.
Just as light must have been there during the day, there were a few leftover bits, a here and there scattering of masonry from a previous house, building, store, or any other kind of structure. Rocks, that is. Bricks, that is. Heavy and sharp. Very heavy, very sharp: very perfect, very ideal – for the use I had put one of them to.
In the here and now, the darkness of the parking garage yawned open to the vaster darkness of the night. Fewer people than before, most of them having already gone in or already left for home. One remained, a shabby one, a dirty one, a smelly one, a raggedy one, a poor one, a fouled one – not a late or early shopper: he couldn't afford anything.
But he did pay attention to me. I don't know why I paid attention to him. Looking up from where he was digging through a trashcan, he met my eyes with obvious fear and even more obvious envy. "You didn't see me," I said without thinking. "Even if you think you saw me, you didn't see me, not even another me, because there's only one me. That is, now, I mean. No copies. Just me, the one and only. The original. Got that? Do you understand? No copies, no duplicates, no fakes, no mirror-images. If anyone asks you didn't see me. The only me, I mean. Understand?"
The bum nodded, I presume grasping my words, what they meant when assembled.
That's when he told me about identity theft.
* * * *
But that didn't matter. Not anymore. Whatever the cause, I'd finished it with the effect of a brick on a skull. I'd been quick. Running forward, I'd reached down and grabbed at jagged masonry. I'd been too quick to even think about what I was doing. Run, grab, run, lift, run, bring it down, bring it down, bring it down, bring it down.
I'd thought about it, yes. But the details of reality were much more vivid than any fantasy. Blood, lots of blood. He went down, but with enough strength to try and push me away. Through his flailing arms, past his flying hands, I brought it down ... did I say there was a lot of blood? Well there was: his face soon glistening red, flashes of reflection in the freshness of the deep lacerations. Another blow, this time less centered, and my jagged point sank in deep, the popping of his left eye – if there was a sound – lost to our screams. Another blow, the crushing of his nose – if there was a sound – lost to our screams. Another blow, the cracking of his teeth – if there was a sound – lost to my scream, his whimpering. Another blow, the crunching of his skull – if there was a sound – lost to my screams. Another blow, the wet sandbag of his head – if there was a sound – lost to my cries.
I was alone, just the corpse and I – the body that looked just like me, if I were dead.
Was I glad for what I'd done? Was it better that it had been done? Was it over?
I didn't know. But I did know one thing: I was alone. I was separate. I was unique.
Sirens. Coming closer. In my past, memory of beating the other me to death; as well as the present when I stood outside the entrance to the parking garage. In the past, I moved after the killing. In the present, I moved away from the mall.
* * * *
Beyond the mall, the street was busy. Retail overflowed, spilling from the climate-controlled comfort out into the real world chaos of weather. I passed a Target, an Orchard Supply Hardware, a Smart & Final, a Babies R Us, and even an Ikea store. All of them great beasts with long sidewalks broken only by a few entrances and exits, all of them flattened monoliths of colors carefully chosen by teams of marketing executives.
A tickle, a touch, a tap of doubt: I was alone on those long sidewalks, walking in front of those monoliths. It was not a place to walk; it was a place to drive. I was walking, not driving.
Best Buy. Turning, I moved from street to store, following some late night shoppers in search of their electronic and entertainment fixes. I didn't need either, of course, but I did need for everyone to think I was just out for a late night electronic and entertainment fix.
The light inside was blinding. I had to pause just beyond the automatic doors for my eyes to shrink drown from dilated by trying to see at night. Around me, addicts flowed, some even glancing back with disapproving looks. It didn't take long for my eyes to compensate and soon I was walking with them, letting myself be pulled along into the dazzle, the buzz, the flash, the hum, the glow, and the flicker.
Then: two blue. A pair, one next to the other. Heart beating, breath gasping, I went the other way, putting as-calm-as possible distance between them and me. I walked among DVD players, past home theatre systems, trying not to walk too fast, to appear as nothing but another shopper, one more electronic and entertainment addict entranced by the dazzle, the buzz, the flash, the hum, the glow, and the flicker.
Two. Think two, count blue. Hey, that's a good price for a ... whatever the hell it is: a box of dazzling design, buzzing technology, flashing lights, humming efficiency, glowing entertainment, flickering electronics. A thing I should own. A thing I must buy. A thing that could make me happy.
Two. Think blue, count two. Two blue uniforms. Hey, that's a great price for a whatever the hell it is: a cube of dazzling lights, buzzing design, flashing efficiency, humming entertainment, glowing electronics, flickering electronics. A thing I should own. A thing I must buy. A thing that could make me happy.
Are they getting closer? Are the two of them heading toward me? I couldn't tell because I couldn't turn around and look – because if I did turn around and look at them, they'd know that I was trying to tell if they were heading toward me, which was as good as yelling as loud as I could that I had a reason for worrying that they were getting closer. So instead I moved toward televisions.
I thought this as I did: my life has become paired, doubled, a paralleled, a duplicated, a copied, a replaced. If something happens once, it has to happen again. Uniforms and televisions – would I again be washing blood from my hands from a faucet behind a McDonald's? Would I again be happy that I was alone, separate, and unique? Again spent a few hours glad to be all of them, wanting nothing more than just to be the one, the only – but this time with the itching sting that it was a duplicate feeling.
I was wrong – and is that something, too, that I'd felt before? A second time believing I thought I understood, only to discover I hadn't?
I was in televisions. The police were coming closer, walking toward where I stood. Pretending to be fascinated by the resolution of something that didn't interest me at all, I watched a sitcom: people laughing uproariously at something that would make any other human being fall to the ground in racking tears. But for me, the humor of their world was too loud, the images of their comedy too bright.
A commercial came on, a fast-pattering pitch drilled into my skull with redundancy. It was followed, naturally, by a second, almost identical in its primal message: buy this and you will be loved, buy this and you will be powerful, buy this and all your troubles will be over.
The police were close by. A radio squawked, official gibberish as loud as the laughter that had preceded the commercials, and as loud as the commercials that had followed the comedy.
Next was the news. The second broadcast I'd stood in front of that night. That bears repeating: the second broadcast I'd stood in front of that night.
I expected a hand on my shoulder. I expected to be thrown to the floor. I expected my arms to be yanked back. I expected cold steel to be locked around my wrists. I expected "You have the right to remain silent–"
I'd say I was wrong, but that would make it more than twice – or has it already been more than twice? If so, that would make so much more sense.
On the set was a face. It was a face I knew very well from shaving, from primping, from miscellaneous reflections, from following me and being followed by me. It was my face.
But it wasn't my face, and it wasn't his face. "Suspect has been arrested in the brutal assault–" the newscaster was saying.
That was it. I understood. I'd been wrong again – how many, many, many times that'd been.
Not him: them.
Not me: us.