Leland lived alone above the Laundromat. Across from Aubuchon’s Hardware. Adjacent to Jack’s, the mill bar all the guys went to after the whistle. I met Leland at another bar in town. Flying Dutchman. Don’t get caught coming out of there, they tell the new guys at the mill, unless you want to get your face smashed in. Hemisphere is a small town, but it’s just big enough for a few people to hide if they really want to. Flying Dutchmen was our bar.
Jim and Tate and I, we slouched around the little monument park across the street and waited to catch a glance. Guys came from as far as Ellis Falls, a good sixty miles away, because it was the only place in the county we had to ourselves. There were regulars, but those weren’t the guys we were after. We wanted guys passing through on their way to LA or New York. Transients. Flying Dutchman was something of a destination in those days, an oasis in a dark, dry, holy wasteland.
We liked the transients. They didn’t stick around long enough to get weird. I guess Hemisphere lost its appeal after a visit or two to Flying Dutchman. We all said we wanted to leave, made excuses for sticking around. Truth was, in my case at least, I could have found a ride any night of the week. Guys promised all kinds of things. Anything to get me on the road with them. A couple of times I almost did it, but I always chickened out. Back then it was my parents I was afraid of. I hid from them too.
I got wrapped up with a regular only once. Leland. He was the only mill guy who hung around our bar. He was an exception. Exceptional in many ways it turned out. He showed up in town a stranger; before long he had a reputation. A nice guy you didn’t want to piss off. The kinds of things people said he could do — I wouldn’t have believed them possible if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes. And he was astonishingly good looking: sharp features, a powerful build, dark unyielding eyes.
It was early one morning, two or three a.m. We were standing out by the monument smoking and shivering in the September air. We tried to look older than we were, fearless until headlights sent us scampering behind the bronze Civil War soldier on horseback. Each time a car rounded the corner, throwing its luminous gloss onto the sidewalk I imagined one of my parents behind the wheel. Tate said we should give up, turn in for the night. Sneak back in through our respective bedroom windows. Jim agreed, so I had to go too. We never waited alone. It was one of our rules.
Just as we started for home — we all lived on the same block — Leland walked out of the Dutchman with a guy on his arm we didn’t recognize. A transient. He looked about our age. He must have had a fake ID. It was something townies like us couldn’t pull off. I quietly cursed the guy under my breath. We kept our distance.
After a block, they turn and head towards Jack’s, the mill bar right next door to Leland’s apartment. We keep walking, hear a commotion. Tate says bolt, but when the fight starts, we all just stare. Four guys come out of Jack’s hollering. I see one of them push Leland on the shoulder, he stumbles back and the transient yells something. Leland straightens up, and quick as lightning, pounds the guy in the face. Now he’s the one stumbling back, and there’s blood. His buddies rush at Leland. His hands are up now and he’s ready. I start walking towards them to get a closer look, but Tate grabs my arm. Leland kicks one guy in the stomach and he goes sprawling facedown. Another guy tries to land a blow, but Leland ducks and uppercuts him in the jaw. I hear a snap. The last guy goes at him, lands a glancing blow on Leland’s cheek, but he recovers, counterattacks effortlessly. He tears into the poor guy with four or five quick blows. The guy doubles over and Leland’s knee is raised. I hear another crack and the guy is rolling on the ground. Blood streams through his fingers. The bartender comes out and Leland has words with him. The bartender nods and Leland walks away, disappearing through a doorway with his guy.
We talked about it all the way back home, even reenacted the scene. I played Leland, the hero. I had never seen anything like it outside the movies. I fell asleep thinking about him and how strong and vigorous he would feel. How my body would yield to his.
Leland became irresistible to me. He was all I could think about. In my desperation I decided to break our rule.
I waited in the Aubuchon after school, pretended to look at power tools. I heard the whistle and knew he would be back soon. There was a shuttle that some guys took from the mill at the end of the day. It let off right in front of Jack’s. When it pulled up, I put down the drill bit I was absentmindedly fingering and strolled out the door. The clerk eyed me.
Leland got off the shuttle and headed to his door, but he wasn’t alone. I hung back. He talked a few minutes with another mill guy. They parted and I moved in. My heart was beating and I got that out of body feeling. For a second I couldn’t believe what I was doing. I pushed the feeling down and let a smile creep to my face.
“Hey!” I yell as I cross the street, all teeth and blue eyes flashing. I stroll up with my hands in my pockets. I’m wearing jeans and a tight beige sweater. I look good.
Leland faces me. I can smell the mill on him. Sulfur dioxide.
I say something. I can’t remember now what I said. Whatever it was brings our conversation to an abrupt end. His eyes get cold.
“Go home, kid.” He tells me. And that’s all. I had imagined it going very differently. I was hardly ever rebuffed. I shrug and watch as he turns around and heads into his building. A car honks. I’m standing in the middle of the street. I walk about a block, then spin around on my heel hoping to glimpse a cadmium yellow curtain falling back into place behind one of Leland’s windows. They all look pretty still.
I tell myself that the good ones always play hard to get.
I let a couple weeks go by before I tried again.
The Hemisphere Queers. That was what we called ourselves and we clung to one another. When it came to camaraderie though, we hardly attained Three Musketeers stature. I didn’t tell Jim or Tate about Leland. He was my secret, and I wanted the secret to grow. I thought about using another tactic, but in my mind, I kept hitting that stone wall look of his. Then I got my lucky break.
What happened was, I got cornered by some townies.
I was out there alone because I lied to Tate and Jim.
Told them I was sick.
Then snuck out on my own to wait in the park.
After a few hours out there in the cold, I gave up waiting for Leland. He was in the Flying Dutchmen, but it was still an hour to closing and he wasn’t out yet. I gave up and headed home.
They start messing with me at the corner by Jack’s. I tell them to piss off and they start towards me. I bolt but they catch up. Then I’m on the ground getting pummeled. I can’t tell how long it lasts.
Someone else shows up. I look up and it’s Leland. The kids scatter. He helps me up and walks me home, and the next day I stop by his place. To thank him. He gives me a different look this time and lets me follow him inside. You can imagine the rest.
Actually, that’s not what happened. I got pummeled alright, but it wasn’t Leland who helped me, it was a cop. He drove me home and told me I was “one lucky queer”. He was not cute.
But the next day I did go to Leland’s. I asked him to teach me to fight.
We trained in the park. It was November of my junior year, and we met every week until summer. He told me he used to be a boxer. A lightweight I guessed, since he was on the short side. Jim and Tate were angry at me this whole time. Our rules were more important to them than they were to me. I just figured they were jealous.
Despite all the time we spent together, Leland and I never grew much closer. Not in the way I expected anyway.
I never had to use any of the moves he taught me, at least not while I lived in Hemisphere. People thought twice about jumping me once enough of them saw us together. Other than that, my life pretty much stayed the same until Tate left.
He left several times. No one called home when he didn’t show up to school. The first time, his parents didn’t realize he was missing until I swung by after school to see if he was feeling okay. His mom fainted, I think.
He wasn’t gone long that time. They got a call from a truck stop near Cleveland. His dad drove there to pick him up. Of all our parents, Tate’s dad was the meanest. When I saw him a few days later, he had a black eye.
“It wasn’t Tom.” Tate told me. “He was actually pretty nice.”
When I asked him why he came back, he just shrugged.
This happened over and over. Tate would disappear, his mother would be frantic until he called to let her know where he was. She would beg him to come home and he would listen. Each time he came back though, he seemed less like the Tate I knew. He was leaving parts of himself all over the Heartland. Hollowing out a little at a time like a termite-ridden log.
Then he disappeared for good. His last phone call home was from St. Louis. I’ll never know for sure what happened to him. I guess it doesn’t really matter now.
I graduated high school and decided to go to New York. I wanted to write, and I thought that would be the best place for me. My parents weren’t keen on letting me get on a bus with no prospects, so I took what little money I had saved and planned to leave early in the morning while they slept. I would catch the three-fifty a.m. bus from Hemisphere and make my way to Philadelphia, where I planned to transfer to New York. I asked Jim if he wanted to come with me.
We were more than just friends at that point. We started sleeping together after Tate disappeared. Our way of grieving. We didn’t try to make it happen. Once it became just the two of us, it seemed like the natural thing to do.
Jim said no. He was going to college in Pittsburgh. Oh well.
I was alone.
The bus stop was right in town, a couple blocks from Jack’s, which meant it was a couple blocks from Leland’s place. We hadn’t trained for almost a year.
Sure I ran into him every once in a while, but we barely exchanged words. I think I realize now why he decided to help me in the first place. I must have taught him a lot about us that he passed on. He was on my mind that morning at the bus stop, and I decided I would see if he was home. I think part of me wanted him to tell me not to go. I still wasn’t so sure I could make it in the big city on my own.
I walked the couple blocks to his door and looked up. There was a light on so I rang the bell. No answer.
I rang again, but still no answer. I can’t tell you why I did what I did next. I turned the doorknob. It was unlocked, and of course I walked in.
There is a flight of stairs right inside the door. I go up and the door to his apartment is open, just a crack. I knock and call his name. Silence. I figure he must not be home, like maybe he stepped out to the liquor store. I step inside and flick on the light.
First of all there’s no furniture. I decide immediately that I am not meant to see whatever it is I am looking at. The walls are bare except for those horrid curtains, and the carpet is stained in places, with a dry, crusty residue. I take a look in the kitchen. The stove looks unused, and there’s nothing in the fridge. I had just seen him a few days before and we talked. He hadn’t mentioned that he was moving, but that was what it looked like.
There is a hallway that leads to the bedroom. I can see the light on. Now I’m getting a little scared.
“Leland?” I call.
My training comes back to me. I raise my fists and walk slowly down the hallway. I pass two closed doors before I reach the bedroom. I feel my heart turn to stone and drop heavily into my stomach.
This room is also bare of furniture, but it’s not empty. There’s a hook sticking out of one wall and Leland is hanging from it. Well, not all of him. Just the outsides. I do a double take, thinking I must be seeing things. It’s him alright. Those features are unmistakable. The strong, stubbly jaw, the perfectly shaped nose, the broad shoulders and tapered waist, every element that aroused my desire was there. They were all just a little droopy.
I get closer and notice an opening. It’s nothing more than a Leland suit. I reach out to touch it, overcome by a mixture of wonder and disgust, but freeze when I hear an unearthly sound issue from the next room. (It was not a sound I had ever heard in Hemisphere, nor have I heard anything like it since. It was like Jello being unmolded before it sets completely.) I snap out of whatever trance I’m in and bolt. I’m down the stairs and out the door before I know it. Just in time to catch the bus.
I got by alright in New York for a while, after I pushed that last night in Hemisphere into the recesses of my memory. It was the best my mind could do to keep up my perception of a well-ordered world. I found a job stocking shelves in a queer bookstore. There were a few nights spent on park benches, but I found some friends before long, and they took me in. I had been living in Brooklyn for about three months when I spotted Leland on the subway.
I’m too terrified to talk to him, so I just stare. But the longer I look, the less sure I am that it its actually him. The face is the same, and the eyes, but he’s taller, lankier. Aside from that, he looks much older than the Leland I knew in Hemisphere, late fifties at least. I chalk it up to coincidence. It was just a passing resemblance.
My mind playing tricks.
Looking for something familiar in a still largely unfamiliar city.
After a year in New York I grew restless. I met a boy named Billy and we decided to travel across the country. He owned a beat-up ’88 Escort that he promised could get us to L.A. and back. I was going to write about what we saw and he would take pictures. He was a photographer.
We took our time. Pulled off the highway whenever we came across a place that seemed interesting. Driving through central Pennsylvania, I had the thought to stop in Hemisphere and see my parents. I wish I had. We drove right past the exit like it was just any other place.
My first sighting after the subway incident took place at a cheap motel just over the Ohio border. Another Leland who wasn’t Leland. I watched him closely, and noticed a stray birthmark on his cheek that the Leland I knew in Hemisphere didn’t have. Again I figured it was a coincidence. As the days went by and we traveled farther west though, I was forced to conclude that something far more extraordinary was going on.
Before long I was seeing Leland almost everywhere we stopped. A diner near Toledo, a gas station in Des Moines, a bar in Joliet, Illinois. Billy started taking pictures. He didn’t see the resemblance until we had the first few rolls of film developed in Omaha. I laid the pictures side by side, and it was as clear as day.
“They do look alike,” he said. “But in the way siblings look alike, ya know? There’s no way they are all the same person. No one could disguise himself this well.”
“I don’t think it’s the same person.” I told him.
“Then what do you think?”
I was silent. A road trip is not the time to tell your traveling companion something crazy.
But of course, the sightings didn’t stop, and Billy kept taking pictures. He was on the lookout too, though for some reason he couldn’t spot them like I could. I had developed a sixth sense. I started seeing women with the same features too. The body type was never the same, but I could always tell by looking at the face.
By the time we reached the coast, our sightings had increased to two or three a day, and for a little while, we seemed to be the only ones who realized something horrific was going on. Now we know that there were dozens, maybe hundreds of Lelands that had appeared simultaneously in towns large and small all over the world, not just in my dreary little Hemisphere. They multiplied and multiplied, spreading out far and wide, until they didn’t need to hide anymore.
They’re replacing us.
One by one.