Maps in a mirror, p.6

Maps in a Mirror, page 6


Maps in a Mirror

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  “We can’t get out in time,” Dr. Rumming said to the inmates in the room. “We’re near the center of Denver. Our only hope is to lie on the floor. Try to get under tables and chairs as much as possible.” The inmates, terrified, complied with the voice of authority.

  “So much for my cure,” Dale said, his voice trembling. Rumming managed a half-smile. They lay together in the middle of the floor, leaving the furniture for everyone else because they knew that the furniture would do no good at all.

  “You definitely don’t belong here,” Rumming told him. “I never met a saner man in all my life.”

  Dale was distracted, however. Instead of his impending death he thought of Colly and Brian in their coffin. He imagined the earth being swept away in a huge wind, and the coffin being ashed immediately in the white explosion from the sky. The barrier is coming down at last, Dale thought, and I will be with them as completely as it is possible to be. He thought of Brian learning to walk, crying when he fell; he remembered Colly saying, “Don’t pick him up every time he cries, or he’ll just learn that crying gets results.” And so for three days Dale had listened to Brian cry and cry, and never lifted a hand to help the boy. Brian learned to walk quite well, and quickly. But now, suddenly, Dale felt again that irresistible impulse to pick him up, to put his pathetically red and weeping face on his shoulder, to say, That’s all right, Daddy’s holding you.

  “That’s all right, Daddy’s holding you,” Dale said aloud, softly. Then there was a flash of white so bright that it could be seen as easily through the walls as through the window, for there were no walls, and all the breath was drawn out of their bodies at once, their voices robbed from them so suddenly that they all involuntarily shouted and then, forever, were silent. Their shout was taken up in a violent wind that swept the sound, wrung from every throat in perfect unison, upward into the clouds forming over what had once been Denver.

  And in the last moment, as the shout was drawn from his lungs and the heat took his eyes out of his face, Dale realized that despite all his foreknowledge, the only life he had ever saved was that of a maître d’hôtel, whose life, to Dale, didn’t mean a thing.


  The receptionist was surprised that he was back so soon.

  “Why, Mr. Barth, how glad I am to see you,” she said.

  “Surprised, you mean,” Barth answered. His voice rumbled from the rolls of fat under his chin.


  “How long has it been?” Barth asked.

  “Three years. How time flies.”

  The receptionist smiled, but Barth saw the awe and revulsion on her face as she glanced over his immense body. In her job she saw fat people every day. But Barth knew he was unusual. He was proud of being unusual.

  “Back to the fat farm,” he said, laughing.

  The effort of laughing made him short of breath, and he gasped for air as she pushed a button and said, “Mr. Barth is back.”

  He did not bother to look for a chair. No chair could hold him. He did lean against a wall, however. Standing was a labor he preferred to avoid.

  Yet it was not shortness of breath or exhaustion at the slightest effort that had brought him back to Anderson’s Fitness Center. He had often been fat before, and he rather relished the sensation of bulk, the impression he made as crowds parted for him. He pitied those who could only be slightly fat—short people, who were not able to bear the weight. At well over two meters, Barth could get gloriously fat, stunningly fat. He owned thirty wardrobes and took delight in changing from one to another as his belly and buttocks and thighs grew. At times he felt that if he grew large enough, he could take over the world, be the world. At the dinner table he was a conqueror to rival Genghis Khan.

  It was not his fatness, then, that had brought him in. It was that at last the fat was interfering with his other pleasures. The girl he had been with the night before had tried and tried, but he was incapable—a sign that it was time to renew, refresh, reduce.

  “I am a man of pleasure,” he wheezed to the receptionist, whose name he never bothered to learn. She smiled back.

  “Mr. Anderson will be here in a moment.”

  “Isn’t it ironic,” he said, “that a man such as I, who is capable of fulfilling every one of his desires, is never satisfied!” He gasped with laughter again. “Why haven’t we ever slept together?” he asked.

  She looked at him, irritation crossing her face. “You always ask that, Mr. Barth, on your way in. But you never ask it on your way out.”

  True enough. When he was on his way out of the Anderson Fitness Center, she never seemed as attractive as she had on his way in.

  Anderson came in, effusively handsome, gushingly warm, taking Barth’s fleshy hand in his and pumping it with enthusiasm.

  “One of my best customers,” he said.

  “The usual,” Barth said.

  “Of course,” Anderson answered. “But the price has gone up.”

  “If you ever go out of business,” Barth said, following Anderson into the inner rooms, “give me plenty of warning. I only let myself go this much because I know you’re here.”

  “Oh,” Anderson chuckled. “We’ll never go out of business.”

  “I have no doubt you could support your whole organization on what you charge me.”

  “You’re paying for much more than the simple service we perform. You’re also paying for privacy. Our, shall we say, lack of government intervention.”

  “How many of the bastards do you bribe?”

  “Very few, very few. Partly because so many high officials also need our service.”

  “No doubt.”

  “It isn’t just weight gains that bring people to us, you know. It’s cancer and aging and accidental disfigurement. You’d be surprised to learn who has had our service.”

  Barth doubted that he would. The couch was ready for him, immense and soft and angled so that it would be easy for him to get up again.

  “Damn near got married this time,” Barth said, by way of conversation.

  Anderson turned to him in surprise.

  “But you didn’t?”

  “Of course not. Started getting fat, and she couldn’t cope.”

  “Did you tell her?”

  “That I was getting fat? It was obvious.”

  “About us, I mean.”

  “I’m not a fool.”

  Anderson looked relieved. “Can’t have rumors getting around among the thin and young, you know.”

  “Still, I think I’ll look her up again, afterward. She did things to me a woman shouldn’t be able to do. And I thought I was jaded.”

  Anderson placed a tight-fitting rubber cap over Barth’s head.

  “Think your key thought,” Anderson reminded him.

  Key thought. At first that had been such a comfort, to make sure that not one iota of his memory would be lost. Now it was boring, almost juvenile. Key thought. Do you have your own Captain Aardvark secret decoder ring? Be the first on your block. The only thing Barth had been the first on his block to do was reach puberty. He had also been the first on his block to reach one hundred fifty kilos.

  How many times have I been here? he wondered as the tingling in his scalp began. This is the eighth time. Eight times, and my fortune is larger than ever, the kind of wealth that takes on a life on its own. I can keep this up forever, he thought, with relish. Forever at the supper table with neither worries nor restraints. “It’s dangerous to gain so much weight,” Lynette had said. “Heart attacks, you know.” But the only things that Barth worried about were hemorrhoids and impotence. The former was a nuisance, but the latter made life unbearable and drove him back to Anderson.

  Key thought. What else? Lynette, standing naked on the edge of the cliff with the wind blowing. She was courting death, and he admired her for it, almost hoped that she would find it. She despised safety precautions. Like clothing, they were restrictions to be cast aside. She had once talked him into playing tag with her on a con
struction site, racing along the girders in the darkness, until the police came and made them leave. That had been when Barth was still thin from his last time at Anderson’s. But it was not Lynette on the girders that he held in his mind. It was Lynette, fragile and beautiful Lynette, daring the wind to snatch her from the cliff and break up her body on the rocks by the river.

  Even that, Barth thought, would be a kind of pleasure. A new kind of pleasure, to taste a grief so magnificently, so admirably earned.

  And then the tingling in his head stopped. Anderson came back in.

  “Already?” Barth asked.

  “We’ve streamlined the process.” Anderson carefully peeled the cap from Barth’s head, helped the immense man lift himself from the couch.

  “I can’t understand why it’s illegal,” Barth said. “Such a simple thing.”

  “Oh, there are reasons. Population control, that sort of thing. This is a kind of immortality, you know. But it’s mostly the repugnance most people feel. They can’t face the thought. You’re a man of rare courage.”

  But it was not courage, Barth knew. It was pleasure. He eagerly anticipated seeing, and they did not make him wait.

  “Mr. Barth, meet Mr. Barth.”

  It nearly broke his heart to see his own body young and strong and beautiful again, as it never had been the first time through his life. It was unquestionably himself, however, that they led into the room. Except that the belly was firm, the thighs well muscled but slender enough that they did not meet, even at the crotch. They brought him in naked, of course. Barth insisted on it.

  He tried to remember the last time. Then he had been the one coming from the learning room, emerging to see the immense fat man that all his memories told him was himself. Barth remembered that it had been a double pleasure, to see the mountain he had made of himself, yet to view it from inside this beautiful young body.

  “Come here,” Barth said, his own voice arousing echoes of the last time, when it had been the other Barth who had said it. And just as that other had done the last time, he touched the naked young Barth, stroked the smooth and lovely skin, and finally embraced him.

  And the young Barth embraced him back, for that was the way of it. No one loved Barth as much as Barth did, thin or fat, young or old. Life was a celebration of Barth; the sight of himself was his strongest nostalgia.

  “What did I think of?” Barth asked.

  The young Barth smiled into his eyes. “Lynette,” he said. “Naked on a cliff. The wind blowing. And the thought of her thrown to her death.”

  “Will you go back to her?” Barth asked his young self eagerly.

  “Perhaps. Or to someone like her.” And Barth saw with delight that the mere thought of it had aroused his young self more than a little.

  “He’ll do,” Barth said, and Anderson handed him the simple papers to sign—papers that would never be seen in a court of law because they attested to Barth’s own compliance in and initiation of an act that was second only to murder in the lawbooks of every state.

  “That’s it, then,” Anderson said, turning from the fat Barth to the young, thin one. “You’re Mr. Barth now, in control of his wealth and his life. Your clothing is in the next room.”

  “I know where it is,” the young Barth said with a smile, and his footsteps were buoyant as he left the room. He would dress quickly and leave the Fitness Center briskly, hardly noticing the rather plain-looking receptionist, except to take note of her wistful look after him, a tall, slender, beautiful man who had, only moments before, been lying mindless in storage, waiting to be given a mind and a memory, waiting for a fat man to move out of the way so he could fill his space.

  In the memory room Barth sat on the edge of the couch, looking at the door, and then realized, with surprise, that he had no idea what came next.

  “My memories run out here,” Barth said to Anderson. “The agreement was—what was the agreement?”

  “The agreement was tender care of you until you passed away.”

  “Ah, yes.”

  “The agreement isn’t worth a damn thing,” Anderson said, smiling:

  Barth looked at him with surprise. “What do you mean?”

  “There are two options, Barth. A needle within the next fifteen minutes. Or employment.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “You didn’t think we’d waste time and effort feeding you the ridiculous amounts of food you require, did you?”

  Barth felt himself sink inside. This was not what he had expected, though he had not honestly expected anything. Barth was not the kind to anticipate trouble. Life had never given him much trouble.

  “A needle?”

  “Cyanide, if you insist, though we’d rather be able to vivisect you and get as many useful body parts as we can. Your body’s still fairly young. We can get incredible amounts of money for your pelvis and your glands, but they have to be taken from you alive.”

  “What are you talking about? This isn’t what we agreed.”

  “I agreed to nothing with you, my friend,” Anderson said, smiling. “I agreed with Barth. And Barth just left the room.”

  “Call him back! I insist—”

  “Barth doesn’t give a damn what happens to you.”

  And he knew that it was true.

  “You said something about employment.”


  “What kind of employment?”

  Anderson shook his head. “It all depends,” he said.

  “On what?”

  “On what kind of work turns up. There are several assignments every year that must be performed by a living human being, for which no volunteer can be found. No person, not even a criminal, can be compelled to do them.”

  “And I?”

  “Will do them. Or one of them, rather, since you rarely get a second job.”

  “How can you do this? I’m a human being!”

  Anderson shook his head. “The law says that there is only one possible Barth in all the world. And you aren’t it. You’re just a number. And a letter. The letter H.”

  “Why H?”

  “Because you’re such a disgusting glutton, my friend. Even our first customers haven’t got past C yet.”

  Anderson left then, and Barth was alone in the room. Why hadn’t he anticipated this? Of course, of course, he shouted to himself now. Of course they wouldn’t keep him pleasantly alive. He wanted to get up and try to run. But walking was difficult for him; running would be impossible. He sat there, his belly pressing heavily on his thighs, which were spread wide by the fat. He stood, with great effort, and could only waddle because his legs were so far apart, so constrained in their movement.

  This has happened every time, Barth thought. Every damn time I’ve walked out of this place young and thin, I’ve left behind someone like me, and they’ve had their way, haven’t they? His hands trembled badly.

  He wondered what he had decided before and knew immediately that there was no decision to make at all. Some fat people might hate themselves and choose death for the sake of having a thin version of themselves live on. But not Barth. Barth could never choose to cause himself any pain. And to obliterate even an illegal, clandestine version of himself—impossible. Whatever else he might be, he was still Barth. The man who walked out of the memory room a few minutes before had not taken over Barth’s identity. He had only duplicated it. They’ve stolen my soul with mirrors, Barth told himself. I have to get it back.

  “Anderson!” Barth shouted. “Anderson! I’ve, made up my mind.”

  It was not Anderson who entered, of course. Barth would never see Anderson again. It would have been too tempting to try to kill him.

  “Get to work, H!” the old man shouted from the other side of the field.

  Barth leaned on his hoe a moment more, then got back to work, scraping weeds from between the potato plants. The calluses on his hands had long since shaped themselves to fit the wooden handle, and his muscles knew how to perform the work without
Barth’s having to think about it at all. Yet that made the labor no easier. When he first realized that they meant him to be a potato farmer, he had asked, “Is this my assignment? Is this all?” And they had laughed and told him no. “It’s just preparation,” they said, “to get you in shape.” So for two years he had worked in the potato fields, and now he began to doubt that they would ever come back, that the potatoes would ever end.

  The old man was watching, he knew. His gaze always burned worse than the sun. The old man was watching, and if Barth rested too long or too often, the old man would come to him, whip in hand, to scar him deeply, to hurt him to the soul.

  He dug into the ground, chopping at a stubborn plant whose root seemed to cling to the foundation of the world. “Come up, damn you,” he muttered. He thought his arms were too weak to strike harder, but he struck harder anyway. The root split, and the impact shattered him to the bone.

  He was naked and brown to the point of blackness from the sun. The flesh hung loosely on him in great folds, a memory of the mountain he had been. Under the loose skin, however, he was tight and hard. It might have given him pleasure, for every muscle had been earned by hard labor and the pain of the lash. But there was no pleasure in it. The price was too high.

  I’ll kill myself, he often thought and thought again now with his arms trembling with exhaustion. I’ll kill myself so they can’t use my body and can’t use my soul.

  But he would never kill himself. Even now, Barth was incapable of ending it.

  The farm he worked on was unfenced, but the time he had gotten away he had walked and walked and walked for three days and had not once seen any sign of human habitation other than an occasional jeep track in the sagebrush-and-grass desert. Then they found him and brought him back, weary and despairing, and forced him to finish a day’s work in the field before letting him rest. And even then the lash had bitten deep, the old man laying it on with a relish that spoke of sadism or a deep, personal hatred.

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