BOYS WITH FACES LIKE MIRRORS
by Joe Baumann
The bus crash devastated everyone.
That morning, Jane Philban looked out the kitchen window and tsked at the thunderheads perched above the trees. Her son bounced on the balls of his feet behind her, telling her it didn’t matter because the field trip was to the bowling alley and the bowling alley had a roof.
Mrs. Pederson’s son pleaded from his bed to be allowed to go even though he had a temperature of 101. I don’t feel sick, he said, slapping at his high forehead and kicking his feet like he was pedaling a bike. I feel fine, and you know I really like the smell of bowling shoes.
Anthony Skiles dressed himself, picking out a t-shirt and the new jeans he’d gotten for his birthday because the field trip meant no one had to put on the blazers or the purple-and-green striped ties they wore every other day. He was glad for the field trip because his dress shirt was wrinkled and the teachers would frown at him. Anthony waited for the bus while his mother cried in her bedroom because her husband had told her the night before that he wanted a divorce. No one had told Anthony this, but he’d heard a lot of yelling, the slamming of a door, and his mother’s sobs. He’d reheated his own dinner.
The story was all over the news that night: the bus skidding across a wet slick on the highway overpass and careening through the cement guardrail down into traffic below. No one on board survived, except the driver, who was in a coma for three weeks. She made a full recovery except for some nerve damage in her left leg. Her doctor told her to get a cane, but she refused, and spent the rest of her life dragging one side of her body behind her, pulling the reminder of what had happened with her everywhere she went like a sandbag.
The first funeral was a week after the crash, Catholic and with a closed casket. All of the school administrators came, wearing somber black suits. The principal wore a swishing, heavy black dress that drooped over the pew. She sat near the back and had to excuse herself when she started to hyperventilate. The night before, she’d written in her journal that she was terrified of funerals, that they made her feel like an empty vase.
It was during the funeral mass that the pounding noise started. Through their tears, the parents of the dead boy looked around, startled. The father wasn’t crying but the mother was, her mascara running tracks down her cheeks. When it became clear that the pounding was coming from the casket, she screamed and fainted like something from an old movie. He caught her and trembled, staring toward the box that held their son. The priest stopped and whispered to one of the altar servers, who shook her head.
The priest opened the casket, which creaked like a falling tree. Everyone started screaming when the boy sat up, even men who would swear on their lives that they’d never once ever made such a noise.
The dead boys were alive again. After the initial shock, and when, three funerals later, people realized that this was happening to all of the boys, mothers waiting for their children’s re-awakenings pulled their sons to their chests when they sat up in their caskets. Fathers pinched the bridges of their noses and tried to breathe deeply. Siblings cried or swayed, hands in pockets, unsure of what to do. Those who were older stared at their shoes and grabbed at their shirt collars or skirt hems.
Not all of the boys came back, and neither did the three parental chaperons or the math teacher who had been aboard the bus. Armin Stabler and his twin brother Adam were the last boys scheduled for burial, a dual funeral, and their mother hiccoughed and fanned herself when one son—Adam—stretched out his arms like he was just waking for school when his eyes blinked open. She and her husband waited for Armin to stir as well, but he never did. His lips remained pursed, eyes closed. Because everyone expected them to both be reborn, hardly anyone came to the service. The church was small, anyway, and the air conditioning was out. The twins’ father’s shirt stuck to his back. There weren’t enough men to carry Armin’s coffin out, so his brother joined the pallbearers, trying to heft his brother’s weight with his newly-resurrected arms. The casket swayed and dipped toward the ground.
The boys seemed themselves, had all of their memories. Anthony Skiles remembered that his father had walked out and was surprised to find him at the funeral and then insisting he come home and work things out with Anthony’s mother. We should try to make it work, he said, squeezing his wife’s bony shoulder. She nodded through tears.
As far as anyone could tell, it was as if nothing had happened to the boys. They were human beings, certainly, nothing like mindless zombies on television or in the movies. Doctors poked and prodded at them. They listened to the boys’ heartbeats with their stethoscopes, and the boys winced at the cold metal on their skin. None of them had any scars; their injuries were healed. The few that had been young organ donors were whole again, their hearts and lungs regrown in their chest cavities. They all said they felt fine. Their temperatures were normal.
But something was wrong with their eyes.
Yes, they all said when asked if they could see, confusion in their voices. They had no problems following their physicians’ pen lights, and they squinted and squirmed when the brightness was drawn in close. But their eyes looked wrong.
They’re like mirrors, one mother said, finally, bending in close to her son, who wiggled uncomfortably on the doctor’s pleather seat, the sanitary paper crinkling under him. Her nose reflected back in her boy’s eyes, which were a shimmering silver color. She waved her hands back and forth and the glimmer of her skin flashed across his face.
Are they cataracts, she offered.
No, the doctor said. Not milky enough.
She leaned in close to her son’s right eye. Hmm, she said.
Please don’t do that, her son said. Can we go home yet? I’m getting cold.
When asked to look at themselves in the bathroom mirror, none of the boys saw anything out of the ordinary. Mrs. Pederson bit her lip and looked at her husband, who shrugged. What, their son said. What’s wrong? He blinked and his eyes caught the overhead light, twinkling.
None of the boys had any memory of the crash itself. Just the skidding and screaming and the large rumping noise of the bus smashing through the cement barrier, which had crumbled like a soft cookie. Then waking up in itchy black suits and stuffed into boxes. They talked about their experience in interviews for the major news networks. Diane Sawyer, Al Roker, Katie Couric, even, spoke with the boys and their families, their talks sprinkled over the following weeks, the boys with their mirror eyes sitting at an angle to the camera so that you could see the gaping black lens sometimes. In voice-over, with images wafting across the screen—the bus crunched up like an accordion, EMTs running around with windblown hair—Brian Williams or George Stephanopoulos said that doctors had no explanation for the boys’ eyes, much less why they were alive.
Life returned to something like normal. Parents tucked their boys into bed with extra care. They drove with the radio turned off and their hands tight against the steering wheel. When it rained, parents bit their lips and some kept their boys home from school. Jane Philban shook her head and told her husband as he stepped out of the shower that she’d told him so. She could say that now, now that their son was alive and not dead: she’d told him so. She’d stared out the window and known those rain clouds were trouble.
Mr. Philban and the other husbands had sex with their wives in celebration and relief. This seemed to them the most normal course of action, because what else was there to do? Their bodies and brains were flummoxed from being overwhelmed by inconsolability and then elation. They found themselves waking up in the middle of the night unsure if their sons’ resurrections had been a dream, and they often tiptoed down the hallway, scuffling across the shag carpet, to press open bedroom doors and peer in, assuring themselves that the lumpiness under the covers was an actual living boy and not a trick of the shadows and moonlight.
I hold my breath every morning when I wake him up, one mother said to another. I’m worried he’s going to disappear again.
I honestly can’t look at them, their English teacher said while having a drink at a bar that smelled like grease and cheese and had dim light to hide the sticky stains on the tile floor. She was talking to some guy she barely knew. She took a drag on a cigarette. They all pay perfectly good attention, which is unnerving in ten-year-old boys. And I don’t think they blink anymore. Just stare stare stare.
For an entire year, nothing happened to the boys. Not one of them was seriously hurt or sick, as if they were invincible. Their parents accepted their sons’ eyes, a spot of compromise, many of them thought. An acceptable mutation for the sake of their being alive. Sure, they were all quieter, more subdued. Most of the ones who had played soccer or basketball shrugged when sign-ups rolled around, saying they would rather read, or sit on the couch, or sleep. Those who had loved video games found themselves staring up from their beds, where they retreated to after dinner, counting the gritty lumps in the popcorn ceilings. When one parent worried aloud, saying something was different, wrong almost, another would clamp down on the worrier’s hand with a squeeze, saying it was true. Things aren’t the same, but how could they be? At least we have them. At least there’s that.
Right, the other would say, voice drifting like condensation.
School was cancelled on the anniversary of the accident, but there was a memorial for the math teacher and the other adults, along with Armin Stabler, whose mother had been all but forgotten. Her husband had left, unable to deal with the withering gloom that descended over the house. Adam Stabler spent most of his time in the lower bunk bed in his room, the place where his brother had slept. He rolled toward the wall, greeting his mother with a curved-in shoulder when she tried to say goodnight to him. They ate meals in silence, his mirrored eyes glued to his under-cooked mashed potatoes.
The memorial was held on the school soccer field. Everyone sat in long rows of white wooden folding chairs that gave people splinters if they weren’t careful. The boys sat with their parents, rather than in the front as originally planned, at the quiet request of the mayor, who was the guest speaker. He’d been struck by an eerie shudder any time he imagined twenty-four boys with faces like mirrors staring up at him in the sunshine, their noses and mouths obscured by the shining light blistering from their faces. He spoke of gratitude and loss and consolation and not taking things for granted. Everyone sitting near the husband of the dead math teacher reached out and squeezed various body parts, and eventually he started squirming and he cried out for everyone to stop touching him and he stood and marched off the field while everyone stared. People turned back around a few minutes later and waited for the mayor to finish speaking. They processed one by one to the front and laid roses on a table in front of blown-up photographs of the dead.
That night, parents were shocked when they tucked their boys into bed. A round robin of phone calls revealed that yes, Jane Philban’s son, and Anita Pederson’s son, and Betty Skiles’ Anthony all had a strange silver sheen to their skin, like someone had covered their faces in metallic paint.
He looks like the Tin Man, Mrs. Philban whispered to herself. She tried wiping at her son’s cheek, but he grunted and slapped her hand away and turned toward the wall.
What do we do, she said.
Take him to the doctor, I guess, her husband said.
A few parents took their sons to the emergency room that night, only to have harried doctors tell them that this was something new, something never-before-seen, and that there wasn’t a prescribed treatment for this. Temperatures were normal, double- and triple-checked. Blood pressures stable, heartbeats strong, steady thumps in chests. The boys reported a slight itchiness in their faces, and, in an attempt to assuage unnerved parents, the doctors suggested Benadryl and a good night’s sleep.
In the morning, parents were greeted with sons whose faces had changed. Although the shape was the same, their cheekbones, lips, everything had taken on the hue of a mirror, glassy and sleek. The contours of the boys’ faces made their parents’ reflections stretch and bloat like they were staring into a funhouse mirror. Terrified, the parents called one another.
I don’t know what to do.
No one will tell me what’s going on.
Are you sending him to school?
How can I?
One mother lamented to her therapist: I just want to see him, but all I can see is myself.
It was the start of some unstoppable devolution. The next day, the mirror coldness had strayed down to the boys’ chests and into their hair; a week later, they were walking mirrors, shimmering back everything around them. Parents could barely look at them, the images were so confusing. The boys continued to say they felt nothing amiss in their bones. Their hands still felt like hands. When they rolled their tongues over their lips they felt the smooth roundness of flesh, the familiar ridges of their mouths. They could move and walk and talk as always. In their eyes, they looked absolutely normal. All of them did complain of an even stronger urge to sleep, an exhaustion that was starting to heave down on their shoulders like heavy hands. Most of them stopped going to school and only sat up in bed for some soup or cereal.
It’s getting unbearable, Jane Philban lamented to her husband one night while they were wrapped in each other’s arms.
I just wish there was something we could do, said Mrs. Pederson.
Anthony Skiles’ mother and father started fighting again, the stress of what was happening to their son opening up cracks they had tried to cleave together upon his waking from the dead. They managed to whisper at first, keeping their hissing disagreement from their son’s reflective ears, but volume started to edge its way into their voices without them noticing.
When their skin from head to foot had taken on the sheen of a mirror, the boys were sleeping almost all day. One couldn’t tell if their eyes were open or closed anymore; even their eyelashes were tiny, flicking mirrors. The Philbans stood watch over their son, taking vacation and sick days in order to be near him. His breathing was heavy and creaky, and it fogged his mirror-lips with each exhalation. They watched him toss and turn, groaning that there was a heavy weight on his chest.
Doctors still couldn’t account for what was happening. Aside from the scraping clink of metal on metal, stethoscopes revealed nothing but a normal heartbeat, if a little slower than before. Blood pressure was still normal—and, to many doctors’ surprise, still detectable through cold metallic arms—and temperatures stable. X-rays revealed regular skeletons underneath that glassy, reflective exterior.
After a week of this shining transformation, parents woke to an unsettled calm. The nervousness that had manifested itself as a sourness in their mouths and a stiffness in their arms was gone. The Philbans and Pedersons rushed to their sons’ rooms; Mr. and Mrs. Skiles—he from the living room, she from their California king bed—met in the hallway and felt their looming distaste for one another vanish like rising mist. Husbands and wives went together to their sons, letting bedroom doors creak open like vault entrances, heavy and safe. Though their sons’ beds were tousled, blankets and sheets twisted with the unsettled sleep they knew had befallen their children, something was smooth and kind about the comforters’ slopes.
They peeled back the blankets and found mirrors lying there. Nothing boy-shaped, but flat, body-length mirrors with plain wooden borders stained the color of their sons’ hair. The parents looked these mirrors up and down, peeling the covers all the way back, tucking them down past the end of the bed.
None of them cried out or bawled. Mrs. Stabler let a few tears dribble down her face, and they plunked against the cold metal that had once been her son. No one suspected some kind of trick. Jane Philban squeezed her husband’s hand and let out a small sigh, a release of air that had been bottled up for the past year.
Together, parents lifted the mirrors from the beds. The wood was smooth in their hands, warm. They squeezed the frames hard, feeling their own pulse in their clenched fists. Each couple chose a spot: above the fireplace, in the dining room, on the bedroom wall—somewhere to hang their mirror, a place they would pass by regularly, somewhere to stop, chew on a cheek, and, looking themselves over, adjusting a collar or tie, smoothing a shirt, remember.
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Tulane Review, Hawai’i Review, Folio, and numerous others, and he is the author of two chapbooks of fiction: Ivory Children and Rolling Girl, Shepherd Hill. He has been a finalist for the Andrew Cappon Prize for Fiction and the River Styx Microfiction Award. He teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri.
Image credit: sharyn morrow on Flickr