I splashed a handful of water across my sweat-drenched brow, seeking relief from the overheated workout. I'd pushed myself hard on the treadmill, cranking the speed to seven for the final minutes. As the water drizzled down the basin, my eyes spun toward a black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall. I gasped, not out of exhaustion, but since my friend Sam was in the picture.
The photo had to be at least thirty years old, if not more. Titanium Gym was the self proclaimed "Genesis of Bodybuilding," and muscular pictures of the founders of the sport littered the walls. This one displayed a young bodybuilder who would later become a global movie sensation. He sat in the left of the frame, while a dozen others were grouped beside him. His youthful appearance dated the photo; so I knew the man standing in the far-right corner couldn't be Sam, since he would've been a child back then.
I wondered how I could've missed spotting the similarities before. I wasn't a bodybuilder and my middle-aged gut ensured no picture of me would ever don these walls, but Titanium was my regular gym, so I must've seen this photo hundreds of times without once noticing the likeness to my friend.
I grinned, toweled off my face, and fetched a cell phone from the gym bag. Sam would get such a kick off discovering his doppelganger standing near this famous actor. We always shared funny links on the Internet, constantly trying to top each other with the most witty and outrageous stories. I snapped a photo and texted it to him.
I knew it wouldn't take long for Sam to respond, but I was surprised when my phone buzzed only seconds later. Not only that, instead of texting one of his typical sidesplitting replies, he was calling me. On occasion, we'd meet up for drinks, but most of our communication came through a screen of one sort or another. For the life of me, I couldn't recall the last time we'd talked on the phone.
"Sam?" I answered.
"Drop whatever you're doing and get over here." He sounded frantic, almost hysterical.
"I promised Joanne I'd be back after my workout. Can't this wait?" I zipped the gym bag and exited the bathroom.
"Life and death, Fred. Life and death," he repeated.
"Okay. Relax. I'm on my way."
Sam rubbed the back of his neck while pacing across the living room. I glanced up from my seat mid-couch, while peeling a bit of the label from the expensive craft beer he'd given me. If he hadn't spat whatever was on his mind by the time I finished the beer, I'd find a reason to bounce.
My wife, Joanne, hadn't been pleased when I'd called to tell her I'd be late. She'd scolded me for breaking my promise to fix Dalton's bike this afternoon. The brakes did need tweaking, but it hardly mattered, since the boy barely rode it anymore. His sole interest these days was his upcoming driver's permit and soon the bike would hang dusty in the garage, so I couldn't understand Joanne's sky-falling attitude toward fixing it.
She kept envisioning Dalton as that little boy who picked his nose and adored riddles, rather than the young man who'd given up comic books and toys for an unambiguous interest in girls. No way he could paw his girlfriend Casey on the back of that Huffy. Joanne just loathed watching him grow. She'd even protested when I'd put a lock on his bedroom door as if somehow she could prevent that development.
"You saw it at the gym?" Sam asked, breaking the silence.
"At Titanium." I shifted in my seat and tore another chunk from the beer's label. I knew I shouldn't be drinking after the workout, but the suds tasted heavenly to my parched lips.
"You can't go back." Sam's eyes widened with a deadly seriousness.
"Afraid someone might recognize you as a former bodybuilder?" I joked. "Or maybe, you don't want anyone to realize you're a never-aging vampire."
"It's not that. Bad things happen when it arrives."
"What? Your doppelganger?" I smirked. "Come on. What's really going on?"
"It's not a doppelganger, or at least, not in real life. The replica only comes in photos." Sam turned, staring in either direction before taking a seat next to me on the couch.
"So this has happened before?"
Sam nodded and swallowed a mouthful of air. "It always happens. I didn't realize we'd known each other that long."
"Eight or nine years." I remembered the party where we'd first met. We'd related off-color jokes and discussed art from Weimar Germany, connecting right off the bat.
"I didn't do the count with you. I'm sorry. I had no idea how much time had passed." Sam cursed and slapped the couch.
"Easy now. What's this about a count?"
"Did you ever wonder why my relationships never lasted longer than three years? Why I never had children?"
"I thought you were lucky." I chuckled. "Don't you enjoy the playboy life?"
"No. I'm cursed."
I had to laugh at that. If there was anyone in the world who wasn't cursed, it was Sam. He was handsome, healthy, and from what I'd gathered, earned quite a salary as a researcher for a nearby government think-tank.
"It's true. The first time it happened was when I was a kid. We'd hang at this arcade, playing video games and air hockey. I still remember the place. They had this rickety fountain machine that sold sodas for a quarter. Half the time the cup wouldn't drop and you'd get covered in sticky goo."
"I remember arcades. Boy, have the games changed since then." I pantomimed playing with a joystick.
"More violent, but at least the kids are safe at home. In those days there was always a certain sketch-factor at the arcade. The older teens would drink beer near the pool tables while a constant cloud of marijuana smoke wafted through the air."
"As a parent, I'm thankful for the change." At least he was reminiscing. I raised my bottle to cheer, but Sam snapped straight up.
"We're friends, so you deserve the truth."
I motioned for him to continue, and he told about his former best friend Ronnie, who'd palled around with him at the arcade. They'd spent every free hour together, oftentimes up to mischief. I was surprised to hear Sam describe his habit of shoplifting, since these days, he didn't so much as swear. Back then, he and Ronnie would steal anything from candy, to audiocassettes, to the ultimate prize, a pornographic magazine. Afterwards, they would head to the arcade to divvy up the loot.
To avoid being noticed with their pilfered goods, they hung near the obsolete games off in a corner. Nobody went back there, so sometimes they hid their loot behind the consoles, since at home, their curious mothers might discover it.
This was the case when Ronnie discovered the photo. A week before, he'd stashed a porno behind a broken car racing game, but couldn't find it anywhere. Sam recalled how Ronnie's fingers were stained from snacking on dyed pistachios, and how he left smudgy red fingerprints while tugging on machine after machine in his fruitless quest for the missing dirty magazine.
Ronnie was about to give up when he heaved one final machine, and a dusty photograph tumbled out from behind. When he picked it up, he roared in delight. In it, a group of children were sledding down a steep hill. The child in the rear looked exactly like Sam.
It wasn't him, though. They had quite a laugh over it. Ronnie nicknamed it Sam's replica, after a storyline in a comic book he was reading.
Sam didn't think much of that photo, not until three days later. At the time, Sam's mother was having one of her fits, which was what they called her psychotic breaks, so he hadn't been able to play with Ronnie. Nor had he been at the arcade to witness the shower of bullets that impaled his best friend in the chest. The photo was the only thing in Ronnie's pocket when he died, and when given to him, Sam tossed the cursed thing out.
Though, the replica name stuck. That was what he called it when another photo of him appeared during his senior year at college. At the time, he was dating Cynthia, a girl he'd known since they were both sophomores. She was perfect for him, smart, witty, and beautiful in an unorthodox way. She had long purple hair, a nose ring, and tattoos far before they'd reached mainstream popularity.
After Ronnie's death, Sam had retreated into his books, barely socializing throughout high school. When he began college, he spent the majority of the evenings locked inside his dorm room. His greatest fear was that everyone on campus would see through his clean-cut exterior and gawk into his chaotic home-life.
His mother's condition had worsened, where unless she was constantly watched, she'd hurt herself. Leaving for college, even if only on the other side of Los Angeles, had left Sam feeling vulnerable and guilt-ridden. Without a father, his aging grandmother had taken on the role of caretaker for his mom, and he feared she wasn't up to the job. Worse, the next closest "friend" was his mother's psychic, whose only real fortunetelling skill involved discovering new items to fleece from her.
What impressed Sam most about Cynthia was the ability to wear her dysfunction with pride. Unlike the other girls who posed all proper while peacocking for the boys, Cynthia spoke her mind, no matter how off-putting. As their relationship blossomed, they recounted stories of their broken homes, finding common themes Sam never thought he could tell anyone. More than that, they shared music. A passion they indulged almost as frequently as their love life.
Due to their shared fervor, Replay Records, a local second-hand store near campus became one of their favorite hangouts. Compact discs were relatively new at that point, so everyone was selling off their old record collections to upgrade. Everyone but Sam and Cynthia. They bought whatever they could afford, rifling through the dollar-bin on almost a daily basis.
The manager at Replay Records knew them both and would oftentimes save some of the more interesting albums in the rear. Cynthia always beamed whenever she entered the store and had no problem flirting with the employees if she thought it might lead to a discount. Though, at the end of the day, she always ended up with Sam, sharing the new tunes.
She did keep one album a secret. It was midterm week, so he hadn't been around, instead spending his time studying in the library. When she insisted he meet up to witness the score of a lifetime, he'd blown her off to catch up on his reading.
Sam paused as a smattering of tears welled in his eyes. He whimpered something inaudible and sniffled. My beer was empty, so I broke the silence by offering to fetch a refill. He agreed, and when I returned, he'd composed himself enough to continue.
He'd scoured the police reports afterwards, unable to comprehend the news. One of the employees at Replay Records had discovered a Belgium import with guitarist resembling Sam and used it to lure Cynthia into the storage room where he made an advance. She'd politely refused, but he kept pressing. The other employees heard the commotion, but he'd locked the door, so they were helpless as he tackled her to the floor.
The crazy employee had a hunting knife, which he used to shear off her dress. When he dug too far and slashed her shoulder, she shrieked. He yelled for her to shut up, stating she knew nothing about pain. Not like he did. When she refused to stop, he decided to teach her a lesson by severing her right nipple.
I choked on a mouthful of foamy beer, almost throwing up. Sam was rocking on the couch, so I reached to steady him, but he slapped my arm away. Something in my startled expression must've caught him, since he bowed his head and settled.
"I visited every day while she was in the hospital, but after she was released, she decided to travel to her father's house in Ohio. I insisted on coming along, but she told me she needed space. I respected that. How couldn't I? Not after what she endured."
"Of course," I replied.
"She killed herself there."
"I'm so sorry. I never meant to trigger all this with that photo. Let's just forget I ever sent it." I checked my watch and realized the time, but I couldn't get up and leave after that.
"What? You think that replica at Titanium was the first that appeared after Cynthia." Sam chuckled. "They keep coming and coming. Every time I meet someone, eventually it displays its rotten claws. Happens so often, I know the exact number of days. Nine hundred and ninety-seven. What a weird curse! Not six-six-six or something that makes sense." Sam laughed some more, but it emerged as a cackle, almost sinister.
"Nothing's going to happen to me," I reassured. I'd known Sam for a long time, but I couldn't believe this nonsense. I sensed he might be slipping down the same path as his psychotic mother. I wondered the best way to suggest he seek therapeutic help.
"I know nothing is going to happen to you, Fred."
I exhaled, hoping he'd regained his senses.
"As long as you never return to where you spotted the replica, you'll be fine. Although, our friendship is over. Otherwise it'll keep coming and coming."
"Don't say that. You know I'm always there for you." I wrapped my arm across his shoulders.
"Promise you'll never go back to Titanium."
I nodded in agreement, even though I didn't mean it.
I rubbed my hands together while glaring at Sam's condo. A brisk wind slapped my face as I waited for the fleecy hug of the morning sun. I'd stood in the carport for over an hour in the dark, lingering like a crazed stalker. I guess, in a sense, I was. As much as I could ignore his kooky behavior during our last visit, when it came to my son, this couldn't be dismissed.
I promised I wouldn't hit him, but the longer I loitered in the cold, the more my hands knotted into purple-knuckled fists. I thought about texting, but considering Sam had ignored all my attempts to communicate for the previous two weeks, it seemed like a futile gesture.
According to Marie, one of our mutual friends, I didn't need to worry. She'd checked up on Sam after sensing my concern even though I hadn't gone into the details of our peculiar conversation. According to her, he was doing fine, sober, and appeared mentally sound. I insisted he required help, but she refused to get involved in whatever beef was going on between us. I'd relented, deciding he couldn't get help until he was willing to ask for it.
So I stopped trying to contact him, hoping space might heal the relationship. I even avoided going to Titanium, perhaps believing if I followed all his hokum rules, things would get better between us. Or maybe, that was the exact excuse I needed to be lazy. Either way, I was never athletic, but taking two weeks off from any physical release had left me feeling cranky and depressed.
So when Dalton returned home yesterday and told me what had happened, I was already primed to explode. Bad enough Sam had tried to contact me through this passive-aggressive manner, but involving my son had taken it a step too far. I could handle a hand grenade tossed onto our friendship, but never one flung at my family.
As the front door to Sam's condo opened, I pressed close to the shadows, waiting for his approach. He strode with a brisk pace, perhaps fearing being late for work. I hoped he wasn't in that much of a rush, since there were a couple of things that needed to be discussed.
"My son. Really? What's wrong with you?" I lunged out, blocking his path.
"I understand, Fred. I do." Sam cranked to a halt, but nodded his head calmly. His voice sounded measured and relaxed.
"You don't understand!" I leaned close and ground my teeth.
"What? You think you're the first to ambush me?" He rubbed his hands together and peered up. "Okay. Please go on and tell me how I'm crazy. How I'm the one with all the issues. How you feel upset and slighted. How things will go back to normal, and I'll look like a fool. Did I miss anything?"
"My son! When it comes to him, I'm far more than upset. You don't want to know how I really feel."
"No, I don't." He glared at me. "I don't want to know about you or your son, because I don't want either of you to be hurt."
"You must think I'm an imbecile to believe that." I yanked out the collectable card Dalton had given me yesterday. The man pictured on the card was obviously Sam. He was dressed in an athletic uniform, number thirty-eight, and clutched a lacrosse stick across his chest. He sported a massive grin as if scoring the game-winning goal, or perhaps, a titanic prank.
"That's not me," Sam insisted.
"No, it's Jesse Boyle." That was the name printed on the card, but when I checked the roster for the Ohio Machine, nobody by that name had ever played lacrosse for them. The Internet made tracking down that kind of information quite simple.
The only reason Dalton had decided to show me the card was because Jesse Boyle wasn't listed on the trading sites, and he hoped it might offer some rare value. When I saw it, I exploded, demanding to know where he'd found it. He told me he'd ridden his bike to the Venice Boardwalk to watch his friend skateboarding at the rink, and while his back was turned, some joker had peppered his bike's spokes with lacrosse trading cards.
"How long were you watching my son until you could creep up and plant this on him? What kind of weirdo are you?"
"I told you the truth already. We can't meet anymore otherwise you'll be in great danger." Sam folded his arms and nodded as if scolding a toddler. As if all this wasn't his doing. Until this point, I never knew the depth of his pathology.
"The curse. I know. But I've had some time to think. The first option is you're telling the truth. Even so, what kind of friend doesn't give a heads-up about something like that? No warnings. Not a single word. Nothing."
"I've told people before, but that always ends badly, so I stopped."
"Second," I continued, ignoring his simplistic excuse for being such a rotten friend. "This is all make-believe. A narcissistic cry to be noticed. So when I ignored your nonsense, you target my son knowing that will get my attention. Well, I'm here. What do you need to say?"
"Nothing." Sam stared at the ground.
"I get it. You needed to know you could have my attention if you wanted it. I never knew how messed up you are. Don't worry about any great harm coming from us meeting, since this will be the last time I ever see you."
"Where did your son find that card?" Sam glanced up.
"Enough!" I yelled. "You'll never mention my son again. And if I find you anywhere near him, not only will you have the police to worry about, but I'll come after you. Understand?"
"It's important to know where he-"
"Do you understand?" I interrupted with a firm stomp.
"Good. Now go eat a bullet and make the world a better place." I dropped a .45 shell and stormed off to leave him pondering that. Two could play at this great danger game.
I grunted, offloading the three bicycles from the rear of the Subaru Forester. Dalton grabbed his and Casey's, wheeling them toward a rack situated on the sidewalk next to the Santa Monica Place mall. He'd brought along his own lock and chained the bikes together in what I assume he thought was a romantic gesture. I grinned, though Dalton had made it clear my role as a chaperone was to act as distant as possible.
That wasn't feasible after everything with Sam. So when Dalton had asked me to drive him to the movies, I'd insisted on tagging along. I had no interest in the superhero blockbuster they wanted to see, but the bike ride down the beach path afterwards sounded nice. They would be fine without me at the movie, but I waited in the lobby until they disappeared inside. Then, I took a stroll around the perimeter of the mall, scanning all the shoppers. No sign of Sam.
As I stood atop the third story, glaring into the open-air courtyard in the center, I got the itch to workout. The movie spanned almost three hours, so I'd have plenty of time to hit the treadmill and be back for the credits.
More than anything, I loathed being on a constant watch and realized how Sam's paranoia had crept into my head. The idea of escaping into my music and sprinting away all my troubles sounded ideal. Standing there on watch was only validating Sam's madness, and I felt the need to prove him wrong.
So I made the decision, shot Dalton a text of my plan, and headed over to Titanium. However, before I dashed into the rear to jump on a treadmill, I had to make one stop to prove my point. I entered the bathroom with the photo of Sam's replica hanging on the wall. The picture hadn't changed since my last visit. I kissed two outstretched fingers and tapped it.
Once on the treadmill, I started with a brisk pace and after ten minutes increased the speed to five. Usually, I ran at a six or six and a half, but having taken some time off, I found five to be a bit taxing. I cranked the level on my headphones, blasting punk music from my youth. A basketball game played on one of the TV sets hanging from the ceiling, so I imagined dashing down the court, readying for the game winning shot.
It wasn't until the game ended when I noticed the treadmill had bumped into a slight incline. With less than ten minutes remaining, I'd lost most of my juice, so I hit the button to lower it. The gears remained in place, so I pressed it again. The treadmill remained stuck. Only when I squeezed a third time did it shudder, but instead of lowering, it began to rise.
I almost tripped, but managed to keep pace until it locked into its incline. Not wanting to raise it anymore and so close to finishing, I decided to leave the incline buttons alone and hit the switch for the speed. I knew that worked for certain, since I'd raised and lowered it throughout the run.
But when I pressed the button to slow down, the treadmill wheezed, speeding up.
My feet hurried across the whizzing rubber mat as I jammed my thumb against the switch. The electronic indicator displayed a set of falling numbers, but the treadmill accelerated even faster. I coughed, almost hacking up my lunch, and deciding enough was enough, I hit the stop button.
I heaved breath after breath, attempting to keep pace with this wild machine. The clock continued to count down and less than five minutes remained. I doubted I could last another thirty seconds at this demonic pace, so I grabbed onto the side railings, steadying to jump off.
When my fingers pressed against the handhold, I fumbled, unable to find a grip. I was drenched in sweat, so I wondered if this was why it was so slick. I peeked and noticed a wet gloss coating the railing, almost appearing like oil. When the light hit, it shone a dark red, too close to the color of blood.
Looking down was a mistake. I tripped and toppled into the front panel. It too was covered with this slick coating. Somehow, I managed to keep my footing before slipping off completely. I peered toward the neighboring machines, but not a single eye glanced in my direction. I smacked the front panel, hoping to spark any attention. Nobody looked.
I would've screamed, but just breathing consumed all my will. . Two minutes remaining. Step-step-gasp. I could do this. Focus. Step-step-gasp-gasp-gaaaasp.
With my reserves drained, I struggled to maintain. A sharp pain exploded in my right foot as a blister formed between my toes. I gritted my teeth as a black wave flooded over my vision. Dizzy and on the brink of collapse, I closed my eyes. When I peeked again, only a single second had lapsed.
One-two-three-four. I counted in my head. This time an entire minute had clicked away. That made no sense. Before I could even begin to comprehend this, a jostling agony sliced up my leg as the muscles seized. I glared at the counter. Forty seconds.
Forty agonizingly long seconds.
The curse! Sam's stupid curse. Thinking about this sprouted a rage from the murkiest depths inside me. I couldn't stop this evil, but I'd be damned if I was going to allow it to get the better of me. Not for forty silly seconds.
I groaned and increased my strides. Instead of jamming the buttons on the treadmill, my thumb hit the volume for the music. A thumping guitar riff shattered through my skull. That bastard wouldn't win. No. I'd never allow that.
The counter hit zero. I expected this cursed treadmill to continue, but instead, it switched into the normal cool-down mode, slowing to a crawl. I lunged off with no problem. As soon as my feet hit the floor, I dropped into a crouch, waiting for my heart to settle.
"You done with that?" A brawny man asked.
"All yours." Most times, his concern for the free machine over my well being would infuriate me, but I was just thankful to be on solid ground. I grabbed my workout bag and hobbled toward the exit.
While wondering if Sam could've rigged the treadmill to malfunction, my cell rang. Joanne was irate, demanding to know why I hadn't answered previously. I noticed eight missed calls. Odd, I hadn't heard a single one.
I apologized and asked about the emergency. She told me Dalton had texted about breaking up with Casey and no longer having the will to live. I rolled my eyes, knowing this was nothing other than teenage drama. I told her not to panic and that I'd try talking to him.
After she hung up, I dialed Dalton's number, but received no answer. Somehow after the maniac treadmill, I couldn't get worked up over my son's broken heart. I climbed into the Forester and heaved a deep sigh. It felt tremendous to be sitting down, and I was grateful for surviving whatever had occurred inside.
I shifted into reverse when my cell rang. I hit the button on the dash to activate the Bluetooth connection. Joanne's voice hummed from the speaker overhead.
"Where are you?" she demanded.
"At the gym," I answered.
"Casey's mother called. They had a fight during the movie and Dalton stormed off. She's furious Casey's all alone. Why did you think it was a good idea to go for a workout when you're supposed to be chaperoning?"
"It certainly wasn't a good idea," I joked, but Joanne didn't laugh. "Okay, I'll head there now."
"Be quick." The connection hissed as she hung up.
I jammed the accelerator spinning backwards in the lot. The area was clear. The rearview camera confirmed this. At least, it was when I started pulling back. By the time I spotted the blur, it was moving too quick to dodge. Not only that, it was accelerating as if wanting an accident.
When we collided, I thought it was a dog escaped from its leash. But when I rushed out to investigate, it wasn't a dog. It was Dalton.
Joanne blamed me for forgetting to fix the brakes on the boy's bicycle, but I kept the fact that he'd accelerated from her. I know she'd blame Dalton, seeing it as a teenager's overreaction to heartbreak, but I know better now.
I've had a lot of time to think here. Prison is good for that. I have no doubts about Sam's curse anymore. I can't explain away that treadmill, or Dalton's suicidal race into the rear of my SUV. I don't think he sped up. The bike did it.
More than anything, what convinced me are the dreams. I dream of Dalton often. Everything from when he was a baby, to those goofy poses he did at last year's vacation in Hawaii. But one thing is constant in every dream. His face.
But it isn't Dalton's face I see in my nightmares. It's Sam's superimposed on his body. Every time. Without fail.
Worse, yesterday I spied Sam's replica in a book I checked out from the prison library. My sentence for vehicular manslaughter isn't long. I'm expected to be released next month.
I fear that will never happen.