by Doctor Mercurious
The café-au-lait-skinned ex-model perched on the cheap plastic chair, staring desperately at the pinched little man behind the desk. She ran a hand through her short black hair nervously while he pecked away at his computer. Occasionally, he’d make brief noises that could mean interest, disappointment or the need to pass gas. Roberta crossed her shapely legs – at least she’d kept her looks after the accident – and resisted further urges to fidget. Finally, the Kelly Services rep glanced up at her. “I have one potential assignment, and it’s very long-term; one year with an option to renew. Room and board is covered.”
Roberta resisted the urge to hurdle over the desk and French him; the only reason she had a place to stay was because she hadn’t been evicted from it yet. “What would I be doing?”
The pinched little man peered at his computer monitor. “You’d be a live-in companion.”
She frowned carefully. “You mean cooking, caring and cleaning for someone who can’t do it themselves, right? But I don’t have the background for that.”
“The client doesn’t care. There’s a week provisional period where he observes how you interact with the person in question and if the two of you get along you’re hired. If not, he pays you for one months’ work.”
This sounded too good to be true. “What’s the pay rate?” Roberta demanded.
“One thousand a week,” the pinched little man replied.
This was too good to be true, but Roberta had no options left. After the accident, her modeling career died because of the nerve damage – her facial expressions and movements always looked off. “I’ll take it,” she told him. “When and where’s the interview?”
He leaned forward and squinted at his monitor. “The provisional period is the interview, according to the job specs.”
“Why hasn’t someone applied for the job already??” Normally, Roberta didn’t yell since she avoided slurring her words through careful speech. However in this instance it came blurting out.
If the pinched little man noticed any distortion in her speech, he gave no reaction. “According to my records, you’re the fourth person we’ve tried to place in that job.” He gave her a meaningful look. “None of the others lasted past the provisional period.”
“I see.” Roberta thought about this too-good job hard. Whoever this is must be real ‘special needs’ – but if that’s the case, why wouldn’t the client want someone with experience? Something didn’t feel right about this assignment, but would-be-beggars couldn’t be choosers. She smiled carefully. “So, where did you say the client was again?”
Roberta stood with her arms folded, staring up the walkway of what would be her new home for the next week and, luck willing, for much longer. It was a charming two-decker with a couple of acres of land. A weather-stained wooden fence raced around the border of the yard, and trees yawned near the house’s windows making it impossible to see inside from the outside. She turned to the ‘cabby’ who met her at the airport. “Are you sure this is the place?”
The driver grinned at her from the bed of the pickup. “Ayup,” he drawled in a pure Maine accent.
Roberta turned back to the house. First impressions about places were as important as about people, and something about this place made her nervous. She couldn’t figure our why – it certainly looked homey enough. “Interesting,” she noted.
“That’s Frank’s old place,” the driver told her, hefting a piece of her luggage. “He moved to Portland ‘bout three months ago. Still comes through town every so often”
Roberta stepped away from the truck and watched him unload what there was of her luggage. “He moved? So who’s here now?”
He dropped the first piece and stepped back up into the cab. “Nobody. Frank had a wife and daughter, but his wife’s long dead – cancer. As for the daughter, Carol took off for college ‘bout five years ago. Never made it a secret she wasn’t coming back neither.”
Roberta frowned, forgetting to be careful. “Then who am I supposed to be a companion for?”
The driver shrugged, dropping another piece of luggage on the small pile. If he noted her drooping mouth, he gave no sign of it. “Can’t rightly say, ma’am. Maybe Carol’s not doin’ well these days. Lot of things can happen to a body in five years, I reckon.”
Amen to that, Roberta thought. She was starting to get a picture as to why no one stayed on in the job. She’d been lucky; the scars left after her auto accident were concealable by plastic surgery -- it was just the nerve damage they couldn’t do anything about. She bet Carol hadn’t been as fortunate. Poor girl. “I need a key to get in,” she told the driver.
Her driver dropped the final two pieces of luggage onto the pile and dusted his hands off. The furniture from her old apartment, what there was of it, had already been loaded into a storage facility back home. “Key’s under the front mat,” he told her
You’d never think Portland was just ninety minutes away, Roberta marveled. No one who lived in or near a big city would put a spare key in such an obvious place. “Great. Do you know where my room is in the house?”
“Nope. Sorry, miss.”
Roberta reached into her purse and drew out a five. “Don’t worry about it. Just pile my things inside; then you can take off. I’m sure I can figure it out.”
He pocketed the tip. “That was right nice of you, miss. I’m sure whatever Frank’s got in mind for you to do you’ll work out fine.”
So do I. She turned back to contemplating the house and, gathering her nerve, strode up the walkway and right inside.
When she opened the front door, there was a scarecrow waiting for her in the foyer.
As scarecrows went, it didn’t appear very ‘scary’: flannel shirt, jeans, floppy gloves and a burlap sack for a head with button-eyes completed the ensemble. Its creator had even given it heavy work boots. Yet it was all Roberta could do not to run screaming. Something about how it sat on the floor suggested perhaps it had come to be there by its own power. Roberta licked her suddenly dry lips and stepped gingerly around it. When the driver entered with a piece of her luggage she asked, “Could you do something about that?”
He looked at it and shrugged. “If you like, I can move it.”
What I’d really like is to burn it, she thought. “Outside if you would.”
“Ayup.” He put down the suitcase and slung the scarecrow over one shoulder.
Roberta could swear, as he took the scarecrow outside, that it winked at her. Perhaps it was the light twinkling off one button eye, but she didn’t breathe easy until it disappeared from view.
Roberta hated hospitals, having spent the better part of a year in and out of one as a patient after her accident. Her one consolation during this time was that the drunken bastard who ruined her career lost his life when his car smashed into hers. She could never put it behind her since she had to deal with the aftereffects every day – a face that was numb on its right side, pains in her right leg, and a numb right hand. Often, Roberta would have nightmares involving crone-like nurses and skeletal doctors with blood-drenched hands as she lay tied to a gurney
When the dream started in a hospital, Roberta figured it to be another nightmare.
A woman lay chained to a bed by IV a ventilator and IV tubes; sensors beeped all around her. Whatever sickness afflicted the woman had conspired to reduce her to a skeletal shadow rattling in her bed, so the exact age was unclear. Only her make-up – some well-meaning but misguided soul had tried to pretty her face – told of her sex.
There were two other people in the room with the dying woman. One was an older, man, haggard and bent, his flannel shirt and jeans permanently stained with dirt. His callused hands were clasped around one of hers as if by force of will alone he could hold her to life. Tears streaked down his face and he would often lower his lips to her cheek to kiss it. The other person was a young girl; Roberta would guess her age to be ten or eleven. She had short blonde hair and was dressed in jeans and a plain blouse. Her arms were folded tightly, her face screwed up in an angry grimace, and she glared at the older man as if all this was his fault.
The woman’s eyes fluttered open, and she glanced over at the man. “Frank…”
“I’m here, Liz,” he murmured, stroking her hand.
“Carol…” she stretched her free hand out imploringly. The young girl clamped on to it tightly. “Oh baby, I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault,” she declared in a voice choked with tears. The glare she gave Frank left no doubt in Roberta’s mind who she felt was responsible.
“I want you both to promise me something,” Liz implored, glancing from one to the other. “You only have each other now. Promise never to forget that the two of you are family.”
“I promise,” Frank told her. Carol nodded silent agreement.
“Good.” Liz said. Then she turned and looked directly at Roberta. Her lips parted as if to say something, but it never came out. Her last breath rattled out of her lungs and her head lolled back, eyes staring and unseeing forevermore.
The sensors wailed. Frank pressed her hand to his lips, shoulders shaking. Carol let go of her mother’s hand, glared at her father, and in a voice packed with all the fury she could muster screamed, “I HATE YOU!”
Everything went dark.
Roberta sat bolt upright. For a brief second, she didn’t remember where she was, until her hand caressed the warm, wool sheet. Oh yeah. Her tour of the house had turned up this reasonably clean bedroom, so she moved her suitcases in and set about making her own – not hard, since it was pretty sparse. Must have been a guestroom or something.
Roberta noted the sunrise streaming through the window and stretched, throwing the covers off. I’m not going back to sleep after that dream, she mused. She wondered about its meaning as she picked out her clothes for today. The significance of one being called Frank and the other Carol didn’t escape her. I’d almost be tempted to say my subconscious was working overtime, but who was Liz supposed to be? The dream was just too personal and realistic for her to shrug off.
Roberta finished dressing – jeans, old t-shirt, sneakers, and a bandana around her head to protect her hair from dust. She decided to stop worrying about the dream and focus on the tasks at hand. I won’t get anywhere by sitting on my ass doing nothing all day, she thought to herself. The best way to convince my would-be-employer I’m worth hiring is to show I’m a good worker. And I can do that with a little spring-cleaning. Most of the furniture was covered with old sheets so it wouldn’t be that hard. The cupboards were full so there wasn’t a need to go into town today. I should learn my way around, Roberta told herself. Perhaps I can do that tomorrow. She checked her look in the mirror on top of the room’s bureau out of habit, nodded to herself, and strode off in search of cleaning supplies.
She never saw the scarecrow on her bed. It was gone by the time she got back.
“My momma always told me if I yawned too much, I’d swallow a fly.”
Roberta rubbed her eyes, looked up from her plate of meatloaf – her guilty favorite -- and smiled carefully at the waitress behind the counter. “Sorry about that. Had a bad night.”
The waitress, a leathery woman in her forties, returned the smile. “You’re in a new place,” she said, putting a large steaming mug of coffee in front of her. “Always takes a body time to get used of sleeping in an unfamiliar bed.”
Roberta couldn’t help but keep the smile. She’d come across the Home Eats Diner while out exploring the town, and it already felt like an old favorite. The waitress looked like she could be someone’s mother. “Yes’m. Actually, it had to do with a dream I had.”
“Oh?” She poured a cup of coffee and put it in front of Roberta.
“What do you know about someone named Frank? Owns the house on Sam Hayne Way?”
“And the Meals-In-A-Minute building at the end of the street,” the waitress added.
Roberta raised an eyebrow. “He’s the local manager?”
“He owns the company,” the waitress tsked. “Don’t you young girls read the newspapers these days? Meals-In-A-Minute was founded in this town.”
Roberta gaped. “He’s my boss??” No wonder she was being paid so much! Meals-In-A-Minute, a relatively new business, had grown fast because everyone wanted what it supplied – homemade meals delivered hot to one’s door for reasonable prices. “What does he look like?”
“Plumper these days,” the waitress replied. “Way back when, he was rawboned-skinny. Kinda haggard, too; took him a long while to get over the death of his wife. Why?”
She felt herself go cold inside. My God. That’s Frank from my dream! “Just curious,” Roberta replied with forced casualness.
The waitress just nodded. “So what does this have to do with the dream you had?”
Roberta thought fast. I can’t describe Frank; she’ll think I’m crazy. Carol should be safe if I stick to generalities – I hope. “I dreamt I was in the kitchen of the house; this pretty blonde girl, about fourteen years old, was sitting at the table. She looked like she’d been crying. Then this man – I really couldn’t make him out except as a blurry outline – staggered into the room like he was drunk. The girl started yelling at him about how he was drunk all the time and never paid her any attention. He told her to mind her own business and she stormed out of the room. That’s when I woke up.” She left out how Frank had called out to his daughter piteously after her, or how he’d cursed himself. “It just seemed so real for a dream, you know? Even with the blurry bits.”
“Well, Frank did have a little drinking problem after his wife died,” the waitress said hesitantly.
Roberta raised an eyebrow. “How little?”
The waitress seemed to consider her answer for a moment then sighed. “Two hands, one mouth – that’s how little. At times it was like he was going to drown himself in booze and he couldn’t wait for it to happen.”
“I see.” Great, she thought. A bitch-in-training on one hand and a drunk on the other. Other people may discount dreams, but Roberta always thought of them as windows to deeper truths. “It looks like Frank straightened himself out, at least.”
“Right after Carol left town,” the waitress told her. “Surprised she hasn’t come back, with her Dad being a success and all.”
Roberta wasn’t. I bet the memories of waiting for her Dad to stagger home hurt too much. “Not my place to judge her,” she replied, taking a sip of the wonderfully strong coffee. She looked longingly at her half-finished meatloaf. “Could you wrap this up to go? I’d hate to waste any of it.”
The waitress eyed the plate. “You’ve hardly touched your food,” she said, almost accusingly.
“I used to be a model,” Roberta apologized. “My taste buds know good food, but my stomach can’t handle it yet.”
The waitress chuckled and took the plate away. “I was wondering why you looked thin as a rail. Well, don’t you worry none; keep coming by and I’ll help you stretch that tummy out.”
If I get hired. “Best offer I’ve had in a while,” she enthused. “Tell you what: I promise to be by tomorrow for breakfast. I still have some more cleaning to do, and I’ll need all the food I can get!”
Roberta found herself sitting at the kitchen table and didn’t remember how she’d gotten there. The windows were dark with evening sky, and the light was on in the kitchen. Someone else was sitting with her. A familiar-looking blonde girl, although not so girly anymore – Roberta’s age in fact. A lead weight settled in Roberta’s gut that had nothing to do with seeing a stranger in the kitchen. Or, in this case a not-so stranger. “You’re Carol,” she said.
Carol looked up from contemplating the table top and glared at her. “Oh,” she snapped. “It’s you. What do you want?”
“Answers would be nice,” Roberta replied. “Where have you been?”
Carol snorted. “I’m not sure. I’ve been kept asleep for a while.”
“You don’t look like you’ve been in an accident.”
“I wasn’t. It was on purpose.”
“My current condition.” If looks could kill, Carol would have needed a license for the one she gave Roberta. “Don’t tell me you don’t know.”
“Look,” Robreta snapped. She prided herself on an even temper, but even her nerves had their limits. “I was hired to be a live-in companion who hasn’t been around and doesn’t seem to need one now I’ve met her, I’m one short step from either living out on the street, and I’ve been having these wacked-out dreams ever since I got here. I don’t know what your problem is but it’s not my fucking fault!”
Instead of exploding, Carol’s gaze softened. “You really don’t know? The other four were told right off the bat.
Roberta didn’t need to ask which other four. “Told what?”
“They were my judge and jury, that’s what.” The blonde girl slumped in her chair, eyes downcast. “I wouldn’t have even gotten a hearing if Mom hadn’t insisted.”
“Isn’t she dead?”
A whisper. “Not anymore. I could always count on her, even dying of cancer. Unlike some adults.”
Roberta nodded. “Yeah. I’ve heard. And seen. Must have been rough.”
“It was.” Carol’s hands pressed against the tabletop, knuckles white. “All he ever did was work, work, work. He worked while Mom lay dying, he worked when I needed someone there for me when the nightmares came, and when he wasn’t working he was drinking. He did both at the same time, too – a lot.”
“People handle grief in their own ways,” she said, thinking of her Uncle Mark and how he was busted for solicitation two months after his wife passed away. “Maybe he thought there was nothing at home for him.”
Carol surged to her feet. “I was here!” She screamed.
“But you said you hated him, on your mother’s death-bed, and right after promising to never forget he was your dad. If your father opened up to you, would you have done the same?”
Carol opened her mouth to say something and froze. Slowly, she sat down. “I don’t know,” she admitted.
And then she was gone.
Someone else was now sitting at the table, a tall man in his mid-forties, clean-shaven and long-faced. His arms were long as were his fingers. He wore a flannel shirt, jeans and heavy workboots.
Roberta studied him for a moment. “I’ll bet anything you’re Frank.”
“I’d be careful ‘bout bettin’ anything,” Frank told her. “Somethin’ might hear you and take you up on it.”
A shiver ran down her spine. “Why are you here?”
“Same reason,” he shrugged. “Judgment, though I don’t know why.”
“You think you did nothing wrong?”
Frank snorted. “Hell, no. I’m as guilty as sin.” He looked her straight in the eye. “I was her father. I should have known better than to do what I did but I did it anyways. There’s no doubt about my guilt – that’s what gets me.”
“You’ll get no pity from me. A workaholic and an alcoholic? Carol’s lucky she turned out as good as she did.
He lowers his head. “I know.”
“You were so caught up in your own pain you forgot about hers.”
Frank met her eyes again. “Anything I could say would be an excuse. Facts are facts, and the fact is I was the adult; I should have known better.”
Then he was gone.
Roberta woke up.
The scarecrow was in her room. He was propped up against the wall, sitting on a chair, facing the foot of her bed, watching through button eyes, looking as floppy and ragged as the last time she’d seen him.
Roberta wasn’t fooled. “W-who are you?”
“What do you want??”
“Leave me alone!”
Button eyes continued to look at her, or perhaps at something inside of her.
Roberta’s heart jackhammered in her ribcage, her breath caught in her throat. All she could do was sit there in the dawn’s light and quiver as a thing of rags and straw and something far older sat and stared. “O…okay,” she managed bitterly. “I’m not stupid. I know what you want, but it’s not fair. I didn’t even get a whole week.”
“Yeah, yeah – it’s not fair, but it is justice, right?” She pulled herself into a sitting position. “Children don’t think as clearly as adults, despite what some people insist. Frank’s drinking was bound to make Carol bitchier as she got older. I’m not completely excusing Carol either. She obviously had issues about Daddy from the get-go. Frank didn’t have any incentive to reach out since he was told point-blank such an effort would be in vain.”
“The kicker was Frank and Carol themselves,” Roberta continued. “Frank knows he screwed up and freely admits it. Carol will come to terms with her fault in all this – if she’s allowed to.” Roberta eyed the bedroom door, standing tantalizingly ajar. Maybe if she bolted…she glanced back at the scarecrow. I’d never make it, she realized. And something tells me death would then be the least of my worries. She took a deep breath. “If she’d being punished, end it and give her the chance to redeem herself.”
The silence stretched out, and a sort of tension filled the room. Roberta clenched the bedsheets to her chest; her breath caught in her throat…
She blinked, and was alone.
Roberta threw the sheets off and bolted out the bedroom door, slamming it aside painfully. Her shoes sat poised on a mat at the front door, and there was a coat hanging on a hook there as well. She didn’t know what she would do for transportation and didn’t care; she was getting the Hell out of this house! Roberta glanced fearfully over her shoulder to see if she was being followed and stepped wrong; her left foot twisted painfully, and her numb right foot couldn’t handle the sudden shift in weight. She went crashing to the floor in a scream.
She landed on something soft. When she turned to see what it was, button eyes regarded her. She kept right on screaming as a stained gloved clamped down on her mouth.
She didn’t scream for much longer after that.
Carol woke up. Sunlight streamed in from the window; she scowled. “Go away,” she told it, but quietly. Roberta was still asleep.
Carol turned to her left. The sheets were pulled up and over her right side. “So you are awake.”
The sheets inched downwards. Brown eyes frowned at her. “You know, I used to be a morning person.”
Carol lifted her left hand and rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. “Hear that? I’m playing ‘Tea and Sympathy’ on the world’s smallest violin.”
“Just for that I’m not moving.”
Carol ripped the sheet off. “I’ll tickle.”
“Go ahead – it’s your stomach too.”
“At least for now.” Carol touched their shared chest where her skin-tone blended with the ex-model’s. Personally, she thought the contrast was stunning. Idly, she traced the line up between their heads, then down, stopping at their central breast. “Hey!” There were two nipples and areola on their central breast, side by side. “We divided some more in our sleep!”
“Really?” Roberta brought her own hand to the mix. She smiled, wide and beautiful. “I think it’s happening faster, don’t you?”
“I guess.” Mr. Haystack (Carol still could not force herself to think of him by any other name) had been inventive with his choice of payment for Roberta – and restoration of Carol. He’d swapped Roberta and her mother’s head; and then relocated Carol’s head so it was right next to Roberta’s. At first, their heads had been connected cheek-to-cheek; Roberta on the left and Carol on the right. After a month, their heads had split apart; Roberta’s nerve damage was gone. The two-toned skin coloration came right after that; ever since, their mutual body had been slowly dividing. There was enough space between their two heads that each could turn and almost look each other in the eye, and their torso had widened so they had three breasts. They each had control over their whole body, but Carol tended to limit hers to the right just as Roberta did for the left. “Wonder how long it’ll take?”
Roberta’s voice dropped low. “You want to risk asking?”
“Fuck, no.” Carol couldn’t wait to go far, far away from Mr. Haystack’s reach, if any place could be far enough -- she had her doubts. His influence clearly spread all over town; whenever they went out, no one seemed to notice the two girls were conjoined. In the meantime, Carol did everything she could not to attract his attention. For the moment, calling her parents from their new home in Portland on a regular basis seemed enough. “Come on. Let’s get dressed and have breakfast out; Home Eats has their Cinnamon Waffle Surprise today.”
“I’m going to be a plus-size model by the time we split up,” Roberta groaned as they headed for the dresser.
Carol giggled; she relaxed her control, letting Roberta pick their clothes for today. Roberta seemingly couldn’t wait for to have a body of her again; as for herself, she looked towards that eventual day with a mix of anticipation and regret. A childhood of aloneness had give her a hatred of being alone.
It was very hard to be alone, to be abandoned, when you were sharing a body with someone.
Carol wished she had the courage to ask Roberta…but no. The ex-model would never agree to be a permanent duo
Mr. Haystack’s mercy could be as unforgiving as his punishments, it seemed.