• The air hung heavy with the sharp tang of smoke and carnival food. Shouts, laughter, and renegade bursts of music washed over John in a flood of sound. He walked quickly, occasionally peeking through the cracks in between the brightly patterned tents. This was the alley in the back of the circus, where all the glam and glitter fell away to rubbish and broken bottles and the smell of unwashed humanity. He stopped. This was a good place to sneak in, behind the bathrooms farthest from the souvenir stand. The two burly security guards by the stand looked too new to the business to take a bribe. He'd just have to sneak in without being seen. Silently, John pulled at the tear in the tent fabric and-
    "John Westley!" screeched a voice. He jumped guiltily. Whirling around, he saw an old homeless woman bent double with age. She was covered in dull rags and clutched a ragged shawl around her shoulders. Her scraggly mess of hair covered most of her face except an overly large nose with a large black wart.
    "H-How do you know my name?" he said, pointing a shaking finger.
    The old hag cackled, whithered lips revealing rotted, black gums and crooked teeth. "John Westley....son of Richard and Elaine Westley..."
    John's eyes narrowed. Of course, he thought. Everyone knows my father. The big CEO of Westley Industries...She probably got laid off from the last budget cut. "Look, lady, it's not my fault you can't get a job-"
    "Brother to Alex Westley....sixteen years of age.... date of birth: September 18, 1965, 9:05 a.m..." crooned the strange woman, reaching out with a shaking hand. John stepped back, green eyes flashing with alarm. "Now, John Westley," she whispered hoarsely. "Would you like to know....the date of death?"
    He gasped, recoiling a step. "You-you're insane...." He stammered. "Get away from me!" John retreated again, preparing to flee, but with sudden speed, the woman grabbed his wrist. He pulled away, but her bony grip was surprisingly strong.
    "To-night, as the iron beast doth buck his master, ye who is known as John Westley shall breathe his last breath upon this world!" professed the witch, her mouth moving strangely out of time with her words. As she shuddered with violent tremors, John looked straight into her scorching eyes for the first time. A jolt of fear ran down his spine as he saw she had the milky blue eyes of a blind woman.
    "L-Let go!" he cried, tearing free of her grip and racing down the alley. His heart pounded in his chest, like it was trying to force its way up his throat. At the end of the street he turned to catch a sight of his pursuer. John's heart missed a beat, and he turned to stare. A cold gust of wind blew leaves across the empty alley. She was gone.


    John pushed open the heavy oak door, stepping onto the lush oriental rug. Pulling off his hood, he stared sullenly at the floor, tracing the intricate designs with his eyes. The fire in the earth crackled.
    "John...." rumbled a voice from behind the huge leather chair seated on the other side of the desk. "I hear you've been skipping school again."
    John said nothing, fiddling with the holes in his worn grey sweatshirt.
    "I asked you a question, son."
    "Yeah, I skipped." spat John.
    "Yes, sir, I skipped," prompted his father.
    "Yes, sir."
    The man sighed, and the chair swiveled around. Richard Westley was a large, impressive man, in a crisp business suit and a Cuban cigar in one huge hand. "And what is that you're wearing, John? I buy you good clothes and you dress like a hoodlum!" He gestured vaguely at John, in his tattered sweatshirt and baggy jeans. "What am I to do with you, boy? And this report card?" He waved a letter embossed with the crest of John's private school. "Alex doesn't fail his classes." John stiffened at the mention of his brother's name. "Alex....now there's a son to be proud of! Honor roll, president of the Future Businessmen Club, winner of the Linden Award for Charity...He's my son, for sure!" Richard laughed, a booming, hearty roar.
    John clenched his fists. "Alex this, Alex that! He's all you ever talk about, the 'apple of your eye'!"
    His father frowned, eyes blazing with fury. "Don't you dare speak to me so insolently, boy! And don't let me catch you saying such things about your brother!" He sighed again. "Why can't you be more like Alex, son? He's accomplished so much, and you? You've accomplished nothing.You're a stain on my reputation!"
    "All you care about is your bloody reputation!" he shouted. "Your stupid company and your stupid cigars and your stupid suits! You don't even care about your own family!"
    "Get out!" Richard bellowed. "Out of my study!" John wheeled around, slamming the door on his way out, a storm of rage clouding his mind.


    John swung slowly on the porch white porch swing, head down, sandy blond hair covering his eyes. His father had wanted to get rid of the swing long ago, but John had convinced him to move it to the backyard, where the shabby old thing would be out of sight from the neighbors. He ran his fingers over the peeling paint. They ran over the initials he and his brother had carved, so many summers ago, when the white paint was new and gleaming.
    He glanced up to see a tall, lanky youth with blond hair and intense green eyes. He was the carbon copy of John himself. He looked down again. "Hey, Alex."
    The porch swing shifted as Alex joined him, creaking slightly. "I heard what happened," he sighed. "Father can be a real pain in the neck."
    John smiled slightly. "Yeah." The two twins looked exactly alike; it was hard to believe they were so different. Sometimes, John felt as if he should be resentful of his brother, but the truth was, Alex wasn't a bad guy. Maybe it would be easier if he was, John thought. It was hard to hate his brother; he had always been there for him, and seemed to be the only one who understood. Frankly, John didn't want to hate him.
    "C'mon," said Alex suddenly, breaking the silence. "Let's go for a ride."


    Ten minutes later, they were driving down Elm Street, heading for the highway. "I don't know why you haven't got your license, yet, John!" Alex laughed with an impish grin.
    "Uh-huh," John said, looking out the window at the rows of houses sliding by.
    Alex coughed. "You should stop skipping school, Johnny." Catching John's look, he frowned. "I'm serious, here. Dad said he catches you one more time, he'll actually let the principle expel you. And for some third-rate carnival? The Academy is one of the best in the nation- don't take that for granted. C'mon, John, why can't you be more....more...."
    "More like you?" John sneered.
    "Aw, you know I didn-"
    "'Why can't you be more like your twin brother, John?' 'You're a disappointment to your father, John.' 'You're wasting your life, John!' That's all I ever hear!" He smashed a fist on the dashboard.
    Alex sighed. He took an turn onto the highway, speeding up a little.
    "You know Dad loves you too, John."
    "He sure has a funny way of showing it, then," he spat, not quite holding back the spite in his voice. "Man, you have it good. You can do no bad in his eyes. You're 'his pride and joy.'"
    "It's not easy, you know! Dad expects so much of me- I have to be perfect! everything I do is scrutinized!" shouted Alex, in an uncharacteristic outburst. John started to speak, but he cut him off. "No, John, you're the one who has it good. You can afford to get a little dirt on your hands. You can live life."
    "Life? I don't have a life! You're the popular one, Alex! You've always been better than me, at everything!"
    "What choice do I have?" Alex fumed, livid with rage. "I have to live up to everyone's expectations! I can't make mistakes!"
    John was taken aback. Alex never got upset. He was perfect. He didn't shout, didn't get angry, didn't lose control-
    "I just have to be model Alex, wonderful Alex- inhuman Alex. They don't see me, they just see a mannequin!" He revved the engine, the dial sliding past sixty-five.
    "Even my friends don't want me- they want my father's business!" They were well past seventy-five now, nearing eighty.
    "I can't take it anymore!" The speedometer wobbled up to ninety-three.

    Blaring horns and blazing lights loomed around Johns head. He couldn't tell if they were real or not. Everything was jumbled up- he tasted the sound of the explosion, acidic in his mouth. He heard the screaming, scarlet blood. He saw the pain, blurring in and out of focus as it clutched him in its fiery grasp.
    Suddenly, painfully, the world came into focus, senses snapping back into proper place. John groaned, hearing the tinkle of glass as he shifted. Groggily, he cracked open his eyes, and for a heart-stopping second, he thought he'd gone blind. Then John realized it was smoke, draping the world in an obscure grey shroud. He sat up and winced. Everything hurt- everything throbbed, grating his nerves. His legs were bruised and scraped, his neck aching. John was surprised to see his arm covered in blood- he couldn't feel it at all. His heartbeat pounded in his head, his thoughts as slow and murky as molasses. Slowly, he gathered the fragments of his memory. Oh, that's right, he thought, somewhat dazed. The car....crashed....He blinked. The car crashed.
    "Alex!" he cried hoarsely. "Alex are you okay?" John coughed, the smoke stinging his eyes. "Alex?" It was deathly quiet. Never before had John felt as much terror, raw, immobilizing terror, as when the world fell silent. "Alex!" He screamed, the clammy hands of fear squeezing his heart. "Alex!"
    As the smoke began to clear, the interior of the car came into focus, like a looming ship appearing out of the fog. Shadows defined into lines so gradually and smoothly, it seemed like there was no change at all. "ALEX!"
    Right in front of him appeared the slowly deflating airbag, sharp shards of glass falling from it into his lap. There was the car door, wrenched off one of its hinges, the frozen air creeping inside like an uninvited guest. There was the dashboard, crunched a wrinkled like it was made of paper or cloth, not hard metal and plastic, and what was left of the windshield, spidery cracks turning it a ghostly white. And there, halfway through the splintered glass, was the twisted, broken form of-
    Johns mind shut down then. He switched on auto-pilot. He stared, but did not see the motionless corpse. He did not smell the sharp tang of fresh blood. He opened his mouth, but nothing that could be identified as language came out.
    No.....Impossible.....He thought slowly, as if thinking the words made it true. This can't have happened.....He couldn't-couldn't.....Not him! He was- His breath came, ragged and panicked. He couldn't have....died....because, because, he was....he was perfect! He was going to be so.....John's hands shook as he reached out to touch him, then fell back. How could he die when he was worth so much? When he had so much he was going to do? If anyone should die, it should be someone worthless, someone who did nothing- The image of the old hag from the carnival clawed its way into his head. Someone...like me....

    To-night, as the iron beast doth buck his master, ye who is known as John Westley shall breathe his last breath upon this world!

    John started to scream, but stifled it, seized by a coughing fit. He clutched his face, then pulled his hands away, staring at them with wide, mad eyes, like a startled horse. I should have died tonight......not Alex! It was me! I should be dead! Now he did scream, screamed as he never did before, screamed with every cell in his body, every thought in his head, every fiber of his being.
    His voice ran out before his cry did. John stared again at his quaking hands, mouth opening and closing slowly. He swallowed, eyes glistening with an uncanny sheen. His mind cleared, the path was shown, and a strange moment of peace washed over him. Never before had John been so certain; so clear. His mind had been unbridled of sanity, and the world was sharp as crystal. He could see....see everything!
    "It's plain now..." he croaked. Then, louder: "Truly, the one known as John Westley did die tonight!" His voice crescendoed into the heavens, ending in a starving mad chortle. Yes....John, the worthless, shall die....and Alex shall live on, in this body! I shall become Alex! Alex shall become me! John is dead, and Alex lives! Alex laughed at the cold, dark night. He laughed at death. He laughed at worth. He laughed at John. He laughed at reality.