The Stranger in the Mirror
In the mirror, I see my face come off. It happens slowly, at first. I watch it shifting, sliding over my cheekbones, the features pulsing and drifting. Resettling.
Into a face that isn’t mine.
I blink. So does the other face. Slow blink. Double blink. Wink left. Wink right. The stranger matches it, twitch for twitch.
The face is still framed in familiar lank brown hair falling past my shoulders, but when the flesh stops moving, it just doesn’t look…right. Not really me.
My eyes are too dark, perhaps. No. Now I look directly at them, they seem to lighten. It happens so gradually, I’m not sure they were even dark in the first place. Maybe there’d just been a shadow.
My cheekbones are too high, perhaps. No. Not now that I look. Maybe they didn’t change at all.
My mouth the wrong shape? No, not now that I look. I still have the scar on the side of my mouth from when I split it on the edge of a table, when I was five. Stark white against my tanned skin, it makes me look like I’m smirking.
All the pieces of my reflection look right, as pieces. But the whole… The whole isn’t me.
I close my eyes. Then open them. The stranger is still there. The side of her mouth twitches.
I turn out the light. My reflection can be anything I like, in the dark. It will be better tomorrow. Everything’s always better tomorrow.
I feel my way to my bedroom, not chancing another sight of the stranger. My hand trails along rough hallway wallpaper, counting door frames as they pass under my fingertips, until I reach my own. My eyes are wide, though this doesn’t help me see. I slide my bare feet across the carpet, so I don’t stand on anything sharp.
One pace. Two. Left hand out… Bookcase, yes there. Thee. Four. Bookcase end. Five. Drawer unit—I drag my fingers along its edge as I pass it—Six. Seven. My steps shorten as I expect my bed frame to knock into my shins. Eight. N— There.
I stop. I reach down to touch the mattress, and thus anchored it takes me only seconds to feel my way into bed. I close my eyes tight. I wonder if I’ll dream. I hope it won’t be of that other face.
The next morning I manage to pull on a t-shirt and shorts before succumbing to the need to check the mirror. I need to confirm the strange face was a hallucination. I look at the floor as I approach the sink in the bathroom. When I raise my eyes to the mirror above it, I realise I’m holding my breath. But I need to know the strange face is gone.
I gasp and recoil. I only know I’ve knocked the bottle of liquid soap to the floor when I hear a loud crack and splintering against the tiles, and feel cool sliminess between my toes. Tiny island shards of plastic bottle bite my flesh when I squeeze my toes in horror at what I’m still seeing.
I can’t look away from it.
There are only fragments of myself in this face, now. The eyes are still mine—blue, with the thin hazel ring around the outside. And my mouth scar is still there, thought I’m sure it had never sketched a smirk quite as pronounced as this.
But most of my hair is gone. And it’s dark; almost black. It sticks out in short and spiky array.
I claw at my head, trying to touch the truth; feel the reassurance that I’m still there. All of me. Even the lank and tedious parts.
The touch of the lie is worse than the sight of it. My fingers feel softness for a moment, then are clawing at air. The world is spinning. I slide to the floor, pulling my legs up and resting my head on my knees. I lock my hands behind my neck.
I hear my breath, loud. I smell a pungent sweetness, and feel a cold touch from the floor that ghosts through my shorts and spreads across my skin in an icy breath.
I open my eyes, and see the spill travelling slowly across the tile between the frame of my knees.
Reason is long gone. It’s not reason that drives me as I scoop up a handful of the fragrant slime and rub it wildly into my face. No, not my face. The other face.
I need to wash it off. I feel the bite of the vicious crouton splinters amidst the smears of soap. That’s good. If I can’t wash this face off, I’ll cut it off.
Somewhere behind my panic is, I suspect, madness.
My only reassurance is that my madness is a secret for one more day. Mum and Dad have gone to pick up my brother from his camping weekend. With any luck, I won’t have to see anybody until tomorrow. Monday. I’ll have school… But maybe I won’t have to go. I probably won’t get the chance. Not when Mum and Dad see me and call the cops.
I wonder what happens to mad people in real life. Where will they take me? I hope it’s somewhere without mirrors.
My face is stinging now. The realisation cuts into my thoughts, and I stop rubbing. The soap is burning into the cuts on my face and on my hands. OffoffoffgetitOFF—
The water is tinged with pink when it swirls down the sink. The pain on my face and hands shifts to a muted warmth, and I pat them dry with a towel that’s pink anyway.
I close my bedroom curtains and crawl back into bed. I hunker down, making myself as small as possible. I bunch the duvet in my fists and press it to my chin. I miss the feeling of my hair against my cheek. The pillow is pilled. It feels rough.
When I cry, the tears feels rough too.
The next morning my eyes are brown. I don’t knock anything over, this time. I only feel a sinking in my chest. The cuts are fine scratches now. I can barely see them. The soapy mess on the floor is gone but the pungent smell of over-perfumed flowers still hangs in the air.
I can’t find my backpack in my room. It’s bright orange, not an easy thing to overlook. And with my name stitched on the flap—Kyra, in purple cotton—nobody else takes it. I’ll have to look for it downstairs.
People are down there. I can hear muted talking, and the sounds of spoons clinking against cereal bowls.
When I pace down the stairs I feel like I’m marching to my execution. I can’t avoid the fallout, now. I reach the dining room much sooner than I’d like.
Dad sits at the table scrolling through the news on his iPad. My brother is likewise occupied, tapping away at his phone, though probably not in a news app. I can see Mum in the kitchen, wiping dishes with a tea towel.
I wait for them to look at me. My brother and I aren’t identical, but he hates how we’re always told we look so alike, anyway. He’ll probably be relieved to see I have another face, now. But Mum will scream. She’ll whip her tea towel at me. Dad will yell and demand I get out of his house. Where will I go? How can I ever make them believe—?
My brother looks up. He frowns.
I don’t breathe.
“I hope you enjoyed the whole weekend with your electricity,” he says. “Must’ve been nice.”
Mum turns around. I’m relieved to see she puts the tea towel down. “Rhys, it was only for one night,” she says. “It’s not the end of the world.” Then she looks up and sees me. “And you,” she adds, “owe me for cleaning up your mess in the bathroom. I’ll take it in dollars or dinners. Also, you have twenty minutes to eat and get to the bus stop.”
“I—” I start to speak, but make little more than a croak. Do they not see? I clear my throat and try again. “I— I can’t find my bag.”
“It’s there, next to the couch,” she says, gesturing past me to a canvas lump in the living room.
It’s green. With Ruth scrawled on the side, in crooked white fabric paint.
It has my textbooks inside.
Who’s Ruth? I want to ask. Why do I have her bag?
But I don’t ask. I can guess.
They can’t see anything strange. That must mean this is all in my head. So, talking about it—screaming and panicking about it—could only end badly for me. Today, I would pretend to be the face I wore. I would see how far I could ride this train before it derails and takes me to…wherever crazy people go.
Besides, I tell myself, there is a chance that I will find my feet. This might be a transient thing. My own face might come back. Or it might morph into another one. Either way, I’ll still be at home. Away from the crazy cage. I would just avoid looking at mirrors.
This turns out to be a good plan. A month later, my madness is gone. I am myself. And whenever I dare check the mirror, it only comforts and confirms. All I see is me, secure and safe in my skin. My pale, lightly freckled skin. It dramatically offsets the darkness of my brown eyes. I like it.
Sometimes I dream about the other face. Pinched, lank, and scarred at the mouth. She screams at me. At everything. But then I wake, and the face is forgotten with each passing moment of consciousness.
Nobody else remembers her. And by the time I leave for the bus, my worn green backpack slung over my shoulder, neither do I.