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Things to Fear
When Elsa was younger she was afraid of so many things. There was a monster in every shadow. Topping the list was a carnival when the sun had just gone down, the feel of the cool summer night air, the calliope call of the carousel, the too-sweet, tempting aftertaste of cotton candy, and that unnerving realization that anything could be behind those tents. Are they screams or are they laughter?
But Elsa was no longer a girl but a woman and had no time for such silly fears. Those shadows were exorcised of their demons and she could walk through the field lit up by fair rides and rigged games without anybody’s hand to cling to thank you very much. She needed no parent or boyfriend to lead her around like she was a rag doll. She let herself hold her head high and caught the eye of a man in a carney cape and hat who seemed to have just barely resisted the urge to grow a curling mustache and carry a baton.
“Hey, missy. What are you afraid of?”
“Not you!” Elsa spat back and walked just a bit faster.
“I don’t mean it like that. What’s the thing that terrifies you more than anything?”
There wasn’t going to be an easy way to get this fellow off her back. She turned around to confront him with a smirk on her face. “Do you want to know a secret? I’m not afraid of anything.”
She returned his crooked grin but he only laughed at her, not even impressed. “So you don’t know, huh? That’s all right, not many people do. Do you want to find out?” He held out an oversized hand to the little tent behind him.
“What do you mean? You got some sort of mind reader in there?”
“Not quite. We’ve got a machine that shows you your greatest fear.”
“I don’t believe you.” It wasn’t a very original response, but she was being put on the spot. One can’t expect Shakespearian comebacks off the top of the head.
“Well then, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Normally it’s fifty cents but for you, darling, it’s only a quarter. Or are you afraid that maybe I’m telling the truth. Don’t you wonder, fearless? What can scare a girl like you out of your wits?”
Always the one to accept the triple dog dare to climb the roof and prove herself to the boys as soon as someone called her chicken, she reached into her pocket and found that yes, since she was planning on leaving soon she could spare a silver quarter. She flicked it to the man and he caught it merrily, opening the tent for her. She sauntered in.
It was bigger than she thought, with a small foyer surrounded by walls blowing in the wind that led to a main room. On the sides of the tent were posted signs reading: ‘NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART’ and pictures of horror movie monsters, zombies and aliens and snarling animals. She wondered if she’d find one of those inside, or something foolish like her grandmother’s old doll with the beady-black eyes. But she wasn’t afraid of silly things like that anymore.
But what was she thinking? The man’s machine wouldn’t read minds. She’d open the door and out would pop a man in a mask just like in a funhouse, hoping to scare her witless. Bracing herself for the jump-scare, she opened the door.
The walls weren’t cloth at all, but sturdy-looking wood lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors resembling those in a boutique. “This isn’t so bad,” Elsa whispered under her breath and, waiting for the monster to pop out, she stepped through and closed the hatch. Had she turned her head, she would have noticed the cloth flap turn to solid wood, eliminating the only door in the room.
From some concealed place, there was a ticking. Elsa briefly entertained the thought that she was meant to believe a bomb was going to go off, laughed at herself, and looked around. Her reflection was shown dozens of times in every mirror.
“Is this supposed to be my greatest fear? Myself? Oh you silly old man, you have to do better than that.” She laughed out loud, the triumphant forced guffaw of one who has just convinced themselves that they are truly without a fear.
One of the mirrors didn’t show her reflection anymore.
Her heart nearly stopped, her breath was stolen. She moved carefully, cautiously, almost trembling, to the rebel glass. Inside was a girl, much younger than herself, caught in her mid-teens and pretty despite of it. “Anna,” Elsa realized, quietly delighted. The girl smiled back at her, unmarred by time, those last vestiges of innocence still in her blue eyes. Elsa reached out a cautious hand to touch the mirror.
And then she was sitting down in a desk, first day of high school, giving Anna a small smile and a cheerful hello. Then she watching the other girl step out of a car in a street corner, sweetly unaware of the effect her shorts were having on the younger of the passers-by. There she was laughing, a thousand times, a thousand smiles, a thousand simple jokes. Here she was with her head hung, fading away before her, turning away at Elsa’s desperate shouts. The last time she ever saw her. The next images came ever faster, a young woman – Anna, of course – in a smart business suit at a meeting. Leaning over a computer. Kissing a man in a café; lying beside him, eyes open and staring at the ceiling, in the middle of the night. Running from the same man with a face frozen in malice and hands stunted into fists. Running so fast in the depth of night she didn’t notice the car coming, the car hitting, the asphalt coming up to meet her as she fell, dripping with blood.
“No!” The room of mirrors was around her again as Elsa shouted, the mirror containing Anna shattered. “Come back! No!” She reached out, grasping at the shards, not noticing the deep cuts they left in her palm. She opened her mouth to scream the other girl’s name but found she couldn’t find it, nor could she recall her face or the color of her beautiful eyes, or any time they’d ever spent together. Just a forgotten friend, a faded memory. But the tears wouldn’t stop marring her cheeks. Shaking slightly, Elsa stepped backwards, not daring to question how some machine was showing her all this.
As she turned, she found herself facing a reflection of a young man, mildly handsome, careless hair a dirt brown with eyes to match. Without even meaning to, she stumbled forward, almost falling headfirst into the mirror. And then, once again, the hall was gone. In its place was a college dormitory lounge and a girl Elsa scarcely recognized as herself bowed before a computer and quietly weeping. A hand found her shoulder, slid itself around her and gave her someone to lean on, whispering meaningless ‘there, there’ comforts that nonetheless made her feel better. She found herself in a restaurant, lit from below by candlelight, confessing all her broken pieces and watching as a perfect stranger confessed his. They were walking in the rain, heads bowed in the wind, laughing just a little. Sitting on a porch, riding a bus, remnants of a million conversations and a kiss she regretted before it was done. One last glimpse before she turned away, a teasing shove to soften the blow, and a walk she took only to prove she was strong enough to not give her heart – such a vital organ – to someone so much like herself. A walk she shouldn’t have taken. Because here, in images so quick she barely saw them, was a man looking over his shoulder, a man with shadows under his eyes, a man in a cubicle who couldn’t get out. An old man with kids he barely looked at and a wife he couldn’t love. An ancient man in a white room trapped inside his own head, muttering fragments of the conversations they’d had over the course of years. A man of no importance whose eyes wouldn’t open again.
She screamed when the images shattered and she knelt by nothing but broken glass, but his name was already gone, his voice, his story, the soul she almost knew. All gone like wind after the hurricane. “I’m sorry!” she shouted to the memory receding like a train. “I didn’t think – I didn’t mean to.” Her voice was barely understandable, so racked it was with sobs and desperation, yet she could scarcely remember why.
She was afraid to stand, terrified of what she’d see, but trembling and weeping she rose to her feet nevertheless and turned to the tent flap. It was gone. In its place was a mirror. In that mirror was a tall, gaunt woman with fair hair and a smile which seemed to be the first in decades.
“No,” Elsa whispered, shaking her head wildly. “I won’t forget you. I won’t! I’m not going to! I’ll always remember!” She turned, seeking the mirrors for someone she could stand to lose, But they all showed the same person. Her mother in white lace on her wedding day. Her mother grinning proudly and clutching the bundle that would one day be Elsa. Her mother doing laundry. Her mother putting on make-up trying to hide the lines. Her mother lying in the hospital bed, eyes drifting shut, dying from cancer.
The woman was in all the mirrors, reaching out her hands, the glass growing to accommodate her, the glass moving closer.
“No! No! No!” Elsa fell to her knees, hid her head and cried until her screams lost all coherency. As she felt the first touch of glass, the first memory flashed behind her closed eyelids, the first bit of forget slipped into her brain. And that ticking, that incessant ticking, going on and on and on.
When it was through the mirrors broke all at once, covering Elsa in a cascade of slivered glass. If there was pain, if there was blood, she didn’t notice.
She’d forgotten how to.