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I rolled out of bed and glanced at the clock. 5:54 AM. Good. I was up early enough to have a good chance of arriving on time for work.
I padded into the bathroom. Outside, the world hadn’t awoken yet. The sky was still deep indigo and the sounds of cars speeding on the road were absent. I splashed some water on my face to wash away the sleep from my eyes and casually glanced into the bathroom mirror, then did a double-take.
The face that stared back wasn’t mine.
The face in the mirror had deep purple shadows underneath the eyes. The teeth were a sickly shade of yellow. The skin was ashen and pale and sagging. There were wrinkles deep set in the forehead, and the person in the mirror looked to be old, at least ten years older than I was. The face was repulsive and ugly and absolutely nothing like mine.
But as I looked closer, I saw a familiarity. The iris of each eye was the same deep hazel as mine. The cheekbones were high, like mine. The nose was too big, again like mine. The hairline was high and the ears stuck out too much. Like mine.
No. It couldn’t be.
I pulled a handheld, ornate mirror out of the bathroom cabinet, took a deep breath, and looked in it. The reflection was the same as the one in the bathroom mirror. Framed by the elaborate silver border, this face looked familiar. It was the face I’d seen for months in this mirror and this mirror alone. Never in another one. Until today.
This mirror used to belong to my mother. She left it for me in her will, but I didn’t want it and still don’t. No matter what I did to it, though, the mirror never dented, or scratched, or shattered, or got lost.
I gulped, swallowing the bittersweet taste of tobacco, a permanent resident of my mouth, and opened my jaws. My teeth looked even worse than I thought, all disgusting and rotten-looking. A strangled, animal noise erupted from my throat. I can’t look like this. I just can’t.
Wait. My voice sounded different. It didn’t sound like what my voice is supposed sounded like. It sounded raspy and hoarse and guttural. Croaky and harsh and gravelly. It sounded… familiar. Like a voice I’d heard before, coming out of another mouth. Like a voice I’d heard many, many times before…
I was eleven again, peeking over the railing of the stairs, listening to Mom yell at Peter about something. I’d always noticed something rough there, a husky undertone, but that day was the first time I’d heard it really clearly, a grating sound covering her normal, musical voice.
I was almost fifteen the day Mom told us she had lung cancer. The scratchy voice was always there by then, even when she was whispering. We were standing in the clinic and Mom was crying, tears chasing each other down her cheeks, even though she was trying so hard to be strong for us.
Mom was in the hospital and I was on summer vacation, the summer after tenth grade. Everyone’s face was wet and eyes were red and swollen. Mom, she couldn’t speak five words without a serious bout of coughing. And her voice, the musical voice I remembered, dredged up out of my brain – past years of not hearing it – was gone. In its place was a voice made of coarse sandpaper on metal, of fingernails and glass shards on a chalkboard.
I shook myself out of my reverie. I wasn’t back in that horrible summer between tenth and eleventh grade. I wasn’t watching Mom die all over again, helpless. I was here and now, a normal, good person with a nice job and a nice apartment. And everything in the mirror was just imagined, all just imagined. I’ll just go back to bed and when I wake up again, everything will be normal.
When I wake up, everything will be normal. I kept repeating the sentence, like a mantra, to myself, over and over and over again, as if saying it enough times will make it true.
I crawled under the covers and tried to fall back asleep, but it was like remembering Mom had turned on a part of my brain that had been shut down before. Memories flooded into my mind, rushing to be remembered, to be acknowledged. So instead of succumbing to sleep, I gave in to reminiscence.
Mom’s funeral. The day was stormy and windy and gray. It was too crowded. I felt like I was suffocating. People went up to talk about her and how wonderful she was and how much she would be missed. I didn’t want to hear about it. The hole she had left in my heart was still empty and raw, and remembering her just deepened the wound.
I slipped out and into my car and started to drive blindly. I didn’t know where I was going; I was just driving. My eyes were spilling over with fat tears that slid silently down my cheeks and dripped onto my too-tight dress. I found myself at the park, where Mom used to take me and Peter when we were little kids. I stole into a little thicket on the southwestern edge and started to smoke. The bitter, familiar taste of tobacco helped calm me down, but even after I stopped crying, I kept going through the pack. By the time the sun had begun to set, splashing the sky with red and purple and gold, I’d finished an entire pack of cigarettes.
I began to smoke like that more and more frequently, just going through pack after pack and refusing to stop. The acrid smell of the smoke reminded me of Mom, but not in a way that made me sob, not like some of the other little things that made me think of her: from smelling the flowery perfume that she liked to seeing someone with shoes that looked like her favorite pair of high heels. Smoking reminded me of her in a different way. That was how I had passed my days, until the day they called us all so that we could get what she left us in her will.
That was how I got her mirror.
I kind of liked it at first, remembering how Mom always used to look into it and sigh and frown at her reflection, for seemingly no reason. I liked the shiny silver frame etched with detailed designs, and I liked how the glass never seemed to dent or scratch or get smudged. But it didn’t take long for me to hate it.
It was the night after I’d acquired it. I’d had my usual smoke, this time binging a little more than usual. I decided I’d brush my hair looking into Mom’s mirror. But when I picked it up, I gasped at my reflection.
The person in it was not me. The person in the mirror had somewhat yellowish teeth and a pasty, paper-white complexion. I was shocked. I hadn’t seen this reflection earlier. I checked in another mirror, and fortunately, I looked nothing like what Mom’s mirror showed me.
With a sigh of relief, I hid the mirror away in a hard-to-reach cabinet, knowing I would never look in it again. But the next morning, I saw it as soon as I woke up, lying on my dresser. That freaked me out. I didn’t binge-smoke that day, out of fear of what the mirror would show me. When I tentatively peeked into it that night, my reflection looked more… like me, not like the freakish person I’d seen before, but still not quite completely normal.
I tried putting the mirror away again, but the same thing happened: it showed up on my dresser the next morning. I got frustrated and threw it out the window, hard. It had a long way to fall – I live on the fourth floor – but when I went outside, it was sitting on the roof of my car, without a single scratch or dent. I put it in the middle of the road and drove angrily back and forth over it, yet it was still perfectly fine. No matter what I did to it, the mirror always, always seemed to come back without a mark.
Eventually I gave up and just tried to avoid looking in it. Yet even that didn’t seem to work. Especially when I smoked heavily, I would find it somewhere, like on the bathroom counter or the dining table, and I’d have to look in it. Especially when I smoked heavily, changes would appear in my face, changes that didn’t appear on my face when I looked in another mirror. The more I smoked, the greater the changes, until that day three months ago when the face I saw this morning in the bathroom mirror stared back at me.
Every time I looked in the mirror I would be reminded of Mom’s last words to me. Her last words before she became too sick to respond to anything. “You have to quit.” It was almost an ironic thing to say, considering how much she smoked. She smoked so much it was like cigarettes were her sustenance instead of food and water.
Every time I recalled her last words, I remembered the first time I smoked. It was in a little alleyway that I can’t recollect anymore. A bunch of my friends were hanging out with me, and they all took a cigarette that was offered to them. When I was presented with one, I took it. I’d watched Mom smoke all my life, and I didn’t think it was a big deal. I lit the cigarette and took a deep drag like I saw everyone else was doing. But I wasn’t prepared for the sensation it gave me. I almost gagged. The taste was horrible, pungent and harsh and sour. It felt like a fire was spreading through my mouth and down my throat, like someone had lit a match on my tongue. I wanted to throw up. But I also felt… different. So after I stomped on my first cigarette butt, I asked for another. And another.
When I got home, Mom almost immediately knew what I’d done. She yelled at me, screeching, “Do you want to look like this? To be like this? And I knew it would happen! It told me it would happen. It showed me! And I didn’t listen, did I? You have to listen to me. Quit now, while it’s early!” All this while sucking in the smoke from her own cigarette.
I didn’t quit.
So maybe I couldn’t run for as long or as fast now, so maybe I couldn’t swim hard anymore, so maybe I coughed more and wheezed more, so maybe I got bronchitis every winter, so what? I didn’t care. I never saw any physical changes in myself. Until this morning.
I could feel myself start to drift, dreamy images wafting in, weaving into my memories. I was wavering in that in-between dreamland that you float into right before you free fall into a deep sleep. I wasn’t back in my adolescence anymore. I was somewhere else, somewhere misty, with grayish fog curling around me, obscuring my surroundings. Suddenly I was falling, plummeting, plunging off the edge of a cliff, my insides forcing their way out of my mouth –
Then I was waking up. My body was cocooned in sheets and soaked with cold sweat, as though I’d decided to stand outside in a thunderstorm for an hour. It took me a moment to figure out where I was. Dramatic pictures and strong emotions still clouded my brain, and I shivered, trying to blink them away. What a nightmare. All the memories I’d tried to suppress, brought back again, in vivid imagery. But still, only a dream, nothing more. Thank goodness. I didn’t look like some monster. Still, just to be sure…
I padded into the bathroom, still rubbing sleep from my eyes, and looked up into the bathroom mirror.
My eyes widened and I could feel myself going into shock and I screamed. I screamed so loud I shattered all the mirrors in my apartment.
All the mirrors, except for my mother’s.