The Mirror Game

Fiction
Penny Frances


Photo Credit: Mindsay Mohan/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

I see her.

No. It’s the passenger headrest, the red glow of the rear lights reflecting back. Shadow of an overhanging branch. The luminous chevrons of a right-hand bend jump out and I swerve into the full beam full horn of an oncoming car. Miss it by centimetres. Heart pounding, mouth dry. Keep going.

I grip the steering wheel so my hands ache. If I can just get to Danny. All I have to do is drive. Follow the cats’ eyes. Ignore the tree shapes leaping into the headlights. Ignore the dark space of mirror at the edge of your vision. Think about Danny and pray he’s safe. She’s not here. Just drive.

We used to play the mirror game when we were little. We’d wear the same clothes, Alice and I. It started with the party dress Mum made for Billy’s christening. Yellow satin under the pale gauzy stuff with little bobbly parasols you could pick at. Layers of net under the sticky-out skirt, finished off with a wide satin sash. We’d put on the dress and tie yellow ribbons in our wispy butter hair and look pretty-as-a-picture, as Dad-in-a-good-mood would say. There’s a photo of us standing by the French windows outside the house. Mum’s holding Billy in his white lacy gown with me on one side and Alice on the window side. Mum wearing the dark blue linen with blue and white buttons. She made her dress, too, and found a wide-brimmed hat to match. Dad took the photo—still in his fixing motorbike clothes and cursing about having to wear his too-small suit. But Mum has her look focused on some distant point—Billy was their saviour, or so I heard her say.

For the mirror game we wore the dress and did our hair the same only her parting was on the other side. Stood face-to-face and tried to catch each other out: twitching your hand as if you were about to move it then flicking the other one instead. Spinning round and stopping without warning. Alice was best at the catching out and when she did there was always a forfeit, like a dare. She’d make me mix lawn mower clippings in Dad’s tobacco so he sputtered as he tried to light his roll-ups, or swap the sugar for salt on Billy’s cereal, sand in Mum’s face powder. And then I’d always get the blame. Mum would smile in that if-you-say-so way of hers if I said it was Alice, but Dad would pull those thick eyebrows together, which meant a rage was due. I’d clench my hands tight into the dress and stand like a board, chewing at my lip and waiting for the wallop, Mum wandering out of the room, and Alice behind me, in the mirror above the mantlepiece, with that terrible smirk when she knew she’d got me.

I don’t drive in the dark. I don’t do mirrors in the dark, don’t like them in the light. Danny says that’s fascinating. It’s a condition called catoptrophobia. It can be worked out, he says, with a bit of behaviour therapy. He’s promised to look into it for me, though I already know what it would be like from what I do with Melanie. Writing things on slips of paper: There is no sister in the mirror. The mirror reflects only what’s there. As if any of that helps now, the icy slide of fear as I sense the car coming up behind me, its lights beaming, urging me to look. I slow right down, but that brings it closer, casting the shadow of my car on the road. Round the bend, my neck rigid. I should pull over but there’s nowhere. Then the sodium glow of a thirty zone for the next village, the uniform outline of concrete-faced houses like the one we lived in before I moved to the Project flats. The car overtakes me in a roar of headlights retreating to red dots turning the corner. Last stretch of country road now before the big roundabout and the ride into town. Keep looking ahead and get there before she destroys the dream that is Danny. How will he know it’s not me?

Danny took me for a spin in his new Cappuccino Fiat. Pillar box red, even the seatbelts. Camp as Christmas, he said, the laughter twitching in his cheeks. But the first thing was when he bought me a coffee after my shift. He’d been chatting while I served him, asking if I was doing psychology because he swore he’d seen me across the lecture theatre. When I told him I just work in the coffee bar though I’m hoping to get into college, he was, oh, you must have a double, smiling so big at me he turned something over. I must have smiled, too, because he bought me the coffee, came back again the next two days. On my day off it was all I could do not to jump in the Escort for the ten miles into town to see if he’d turned up again. But it was the day for Melanie to come and check I had food in my fridge and still know how to pay my bills. This time she was showing me the forms for the access course but all I could think of was Danny’s open face and the dimple in his cheek as he smiled looking just like Robbie Williams. Then the next day, two coffees and a skipped Developmental Psych lecture later, he’s asking me to go for a drive.

He talked about the car: how nippy it was and yet not bad for speed round these country lanes. Chill-out music on the radio and my seat on recline—I smiled and admired the glimpse of my new gold sparkly pumps with the black drainpipes. He parked up off the main road on the way back into town. The sky dove-blue at dusk. A footpath leading over a little brook and the lights of a county pub through the bare trees on the other side.

Come on, he said.

I followed him down the side of the brook, across the little stone bridge, the water pouring in viscous streams over the weir. Celandines pushing at the rotting autumn debris and the sharp tang of spring. Along by the dry-stone wall of a soggy meadow and I did a light sort of dance to save the gold pumps, felt the dance inside like a tremor as he lead me on and out to the road to the pub. The dance not ready to stop as I shifted, awkward at the bar with the crowd of suited men on their way home from work, not knowing which of the hand-pulled beers to choose. But sitting outside—some crackly old Motown from the upstairs window—sipping at the treacly bitter and tracing the fluffy outline of a spreading pine, I hugged myself for the surprise of this moment with someone real who said he liked me.

Tell me about your family, he said.

Pinprick white buds on an evergreen shrub: a tiny red moth darting from bud to bud as if willing them to reveal their treasure. So I told him.

I had a twin sister, she died, you see.

The red moth settled on a glossy leaf. The pause in the music as he looked up from his beer, his face immobile, choosing its expression. My fists tight in my lap with the flash of Alice in the cell-like hospital side room.

I— I’m sorry Cilla, what a terrible thing.

Alice pouring red paint on the neurotic girl’s bed. Stealing the queens from the old bloke’s chess set. Creeping up and shouting behind the muttering old lady. They locked her in the side room and gave her a shot to keep her quiet, only they couldn’t, she wouldn’t ever, be quiet.

Danny through the darkening air, his hand reaching to touch mine, the moth flitting away over the hawthorn hedge as the music started again. When will you love me, when will that be?

How did she die? His voice as if he’d pushed the mute button—the far away hum of a distant car.

I shook my head, felt the imprint of his fingers burn.

She was called Alice, was all I’d say. The first time I’d said her name in two years.

Coming into the edge of town now, past the rows of semis on the dual carriageway, the street lights threatening to make me look. I stick to the inside, feel the fear with every car that passes. Only a week ago, that drive with Danny when I thought she was safe to mention. How can I be sure she’s not there on the backseat sending messages from my mobile? Think of Melanie and the job in the coffee bar. Passing my test and getting the car. All on the straight and narrow until Danny shines through and tells me he likes me. She could sneak up behind him.

I put on my best top for work today. Plucked up courage and asked if he wanted a drink tonight. He went all wistful and told me he’s got a paper to write for tomorrow. She could slide the mouse to write her back-to-front lies on his screen. Make him think it’s me.

There are lines of black wheelie bins on the grass verge like sentries guarding the rows of Mock Tudor. We’re coming closer now to his student flats. My hands slip on the wheel as I risk the left turn without the mirror. He said to leave him alone tonight—I was going to text him, what harm would that do? But first I checked the Outbox to see what I said last time. And there they were: Cilla liar Alice live. C 2 get u A 2 protect u. On way 2 u A. All sent to Danny a few minutes before.

I pull into his car park and he’s waiting at the window, comes down to let me in as I lock up the car. I shiver without my coat, my shoes slipping on the slimy tarmac. He holds the door open, his head to one side, expression stiff like he doesn’t recognise me as I fling myself towards him.

It’s not me, I’m not Alice. Me, it’s not me. The words gabble across the chill air as I fall into the doorway. He frowns as he steadies me.

His books lie face down on the desk in the pool of lamplight, his mobile beside them. The computer screen is blank, the cursor flashing, waiting for her to sneak up behind me. A touch on my shoulder and my mouth opens for the scream.

Cilla, what the hell is going on? He pulls me round to face him, places a mug of coffee in my hand. My fingers shake with the cold, the coffee slops to the floor.

For God’s sake. He bends to mop the spill with a tissue from the box on the desk. I stare at the screen, feel her willing me to tip the coffee as I cling to the mug and watch the hot liquid splash some more to catch the fuzz of hair on the back of his neck.

Jesus. He shakes his head as he stands, wiping at the wet. Will you just sit down?

He guides me to the beige vinyl chair in the corner. Takes his time in fetching the coffee to the little table. He stands in front of me and rubs his eyes. I look away, towards the screen. She will write her lies. I must be vigilant.

He follows my gaze to the blank computer.

I haven’t got very far with my paper, funnily enough. His laugh is hollow, his softness gone.

It’s Alice you see, sending you texts, she’ll get in your computer, infect your email. I hear my voice screech high like her. The cursor winks. She is ready to strike.

He turns to sit on the edge of the desk, blocking out the screen with his back. Still that look, like he doesn’t know me.

What is all this about Alice? You said your sister died?

I saw her in the car mirror. She sent you texts but it’s all lies.

He leans forward, his hands on his thighs. I see the swirl of dark hair where his sleeves are rolled back. It goes through me, a sweet dull pain.

Alice through the looking glass, he says, that wistful way of his.

It’s not true what she’s saying, Danny, it’s lies.

He leans forward, holds my gaze with his tired dark eyes.

You’re reminding me of something I read. It goes too, with the fear of mirrors. Dissociation, I think they call it.

I turn to sip at the coffee, bitter and claggy in my throat. Cold sweat under my thin yellow top.

Dissociation. I run my tongue around the word.

Danny gets up and fetches a pine-framed mirror hanging on the wall. Moves his computer chair to prop up the mirror a few feet in front of me.

Look, Cilla, he says. Who do you see?

I turn my head. No! I yell.

Look in the mirror, Cilla.

He kneels beside me, touches my hand. Gazes at me as if he’s working me out. Nods towards the mirror.

There’s a figure huddled round a cup of coffee in a yellow smock top and black drainpipes. Her buttery hair straggles over bony shoulders. You lean forward to the image, is it her behind you? Danny by my side. I sense him with my body and see him in the mirror.

It could be like a part of your personality so repressed it becomes a different character. Like an Alter.

I’m not Alice. I stare at the reflection. She gives me no clue.

Danny smiles in the mirror. His voice is distant, like a lecture. It is order just beyond reach, like a waking from a dream.

I force a smile and see the chip on my tooth. Alice doesn’t have a chip. I stare into the eyes. Are they mine? I pull back. Listen to Danny.

This thing I read reckoned a lot of it was patients acting out what they think the therapist wants to hear.

I turn to face the real Danny and his grin is smug. Behind him fish move through the dark computer screen and the soft gurgle of their breath fills the silence.

I’m not your case study, I shout, feel a fury rising.

He shakes his head. And I’m not a therapist. I don’t need a case study. He pulls a straight-lipped smile with just a hint of the dimple.

I look back at the mirror and I can’t see the chip. If I am Alice I can be as mean I like. What tricks can I play on Danny then? I can poison his fish, put sugar in his petrol tank, type obscenities in his paper. I look up at him, and he’s moved to the desk, smoking a fag like his life depends.

What are you doing here, Alice? He says.

Nobody calls me Alice, I shout it. Nobody ever. I get up, away from the mirror. Step towards him and shout it again. I am not Alice.

He turns his back on me, jiggles the computer mouse and the screen goes blank again.

I bang my fists between his shoulder blades. Nobody calls me Alice!

He turns to grab my wrists. He lowers them slowly to my sides, guides me back a step.

I can’t do this now, he says. I’m tired, I’ve got a paper to write. Why don’t you sleep on the bed? You’ll feel different in the morning. He walks over to the mirror, puts it back on the wall.

Danny makes me a cup of tea, sets it down by the bed. Danny touches my hand.

Sleep well, Cilla.

He moves to the desk, turns the lamp to shine on the keyboard, starts to type.

I lie out on the bed and sip my tea, pull the duvet over me and watch him work. There is no sister in the mirror. The mirror only reflects what’s there. They gave me a shot in the white hospital bed. Alice is dead.

I feel warm for the first time.

I finish the tea and lay my head on the pillow. As I start to drift into sleep I hear Danny’s mobile beep with an incoming text.

pencil

Penny Frances lives in Sheffield in the UK. Her stories have been published in magazines, including in Mslexia and The Interpreter’s House and online with Horizon Review, Pygmy Giant, and most recently with Fictive Dream. She has a Writing MA from Sheffield Hallam University and is currently seeking publication of her novel. She blogs at pennyfrances.wordpress.com. She uses the pen-name Penny Frances as her real name (Penny Wightwick) is unpronounceable. Email: pennyfw[at]blueyonder.co.uk

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