Vanity was never one of my faults, not really, but I had become obsessed with my reflection.
It started, as most things do, subtly, as if everything were still normal. I woke up one night needing to pee; so naturally, I got up and went. I stumbled through the hallway, my feet shuffling along the thin carpet, not bothering to turn on any lights. When I finished peeing in the dark, I washed my hands. Glancing up, I saw my pale face reflected back at me, almost gray from the hallway nightlight. I noticed that I needed to pluck my eyebrows, and that the zit on my chin was finally receding. I leaned in a little closer to get a better look when I swore I saw a flicker of movement in the mirror, just at the periphery of my vision.
This wouldn’t be a big deal if I didn’t live alone and without any pets. I glanced behind me, where I thought I saw it, and looked at the scratched up vinyl floor that needed to be swept. There was a hair tie and some dust bunnies. Nothing there, except that I swore I saw something, felt something.
It was unnerving, but I chalked it up to being half asleep. Nothing to get all worked up about. As if to prove it to myself, I didn’t turn on any lights, and didn’t even hurry down the hallway. I pulled my hair back into a messy bun, snuggled under my plush comforter, and fell back asleep with no further incident.
Having now had the time and leisure to think about it, this was when everything started. I didn’t notice anything else unusual for over a week, but it’s entirely possible—probable—that that was due to my failure to be cautious rather than that the time was ordinary.
The next incident happened when I was at work. I was a barista at Cool Beans, and was tidying up after the morning rush. I was sweaty and focused on collecting mugs and wiping down counters when I felt eyes on me. I didn’t hear the person come in over my clanking and the upbeat music playing.
Looking up, I saw that it was Cassie, a homeless woman so worn out she was of indeterminate age and race, who would come in once in a while to escape the heat or cold and use the bathroom. Sometimes she even washed her hair in the sink and would sit sipping hot water, what she always asked for, as her sodden graying hair dried.
The owner, Leticia, didn’t mind, had even offered Cassie hot chocolate or a mocha, but Cassie only wanted hot water. Cassie made me nervous; I knew she was harmless, but there was just something about her that set me on edge. But if my boss said she could come into Cool Beans to wash her hair and drink her hot water, then I was going to serve her and be happy about it.
Except Cassie didn’t look happy about it that day. She stood a good ten feet away from the counter, working her mouth and her eyes flashed around the shop.
“Hi, Cassie! Just your usual today?” I asked with what I hoped sounded like sincere friendliness.
Cassie grunted loudly. “Mmmmfff. Nnnnngggh!”
Cassie could be quiet and skittish, but she had never responded like this.
“Cassie, are you, ok?”
“Mmmmf. Nnngh. N-n-no. No! No!”
“Cassie?” At this point, I was freaked out and frankly worried. I have no training in how to manage people in the midst of a mental health episode. Leticia hired me because I could show up at 6 am on time—ready to be friendly with customers—and push buttons on a register correctly.
“Leticia? Leticia!” I called, realizing I sounded panicked. “It’s ok, Cassie,” I said in a calmer voice, “Leticia’s coming and I’m getting your drink right now.”
I came around the counter with her hot water and walked over to her.
“N-no! No!” Cassie was yelling, but her eyes snapped into clarity and focused on me.
Then she fucking hissed at me and knocked the cup out of my hand before scrambling outside, letting in a gust of wind and raspy dry leaves like she was some kind of fucking Victorian ghost.
I stared at the water pooling slickly on the terra-cotta tile. My face was reflected back at me, my mouth a round O of shock…until it worked the way Cassie’s had, like I was trying to chew off my tongue.
I clapped my hand over my mouth, my icy fingers shaking against the lips of my still open mouth. It hadn’t moved. I hadn’t done that. Right?
I stared at the pool of water, my reflection still and imperfect. In the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a flicker, but may be it was just an eyelash. It was just nerves.
“Jesus Christ! What the hell happened, Chrissy?” I looked up at Leticia. She looked normal and solid. Her curly black hair was pulled back in her signature bandana, and she was wearing her Cool Beans apron covered with hippie pins. She also looked, understandably, confused and upset.
“I’m sorry. I’ll get a mop.”
“Ok. But what happened? You sounded scared.”
“It was just Cassie. She wasn’t acting like herself. She—She hissed at me and ran away…”
“Did she do anything to you? You’re shaking.”
I looked down at the paper cup on the floor, my eyes skirting away from the water. “No. I’m fine. I was just worried.”
“Hey, I’m sorry about that. Why don’t you get a warm drink, and I’ll finish cleaning up? I know Cassie’s not a normal customer but…” Leticia shrugged eloquently, letting the sentence trail off.
I snuck glances at myself in the polished stainless steel behind the counter as I made myself a pumpkin spice latte. My reflection followed my movements faithfully. I looked wary and like I hadn’t gotten my winged eyeliner quite right that morning. But beyond that, it was the same face as always.
I sat in a booth watching leaves fall outside as Leticia sang along to the music on the radio as she mopped the floor. Cassie’s weird behavior had me shook. I probably just imagined the mouth twitching stuff. I smiled and nodded to my own face glinting off the window. I wondered if my smile always looked that strangely fake.
I told myself that my imagination had run wild. I Windexed all the reflective surfaces in my apartment, trying to remove smudges or dust that could spook me. I went to the optometrist a few months early and said that I might have floaters. I sure as hell didn’t talk to anyone about it.
My boyfriend tried to have sex with me in front of my bathroom mirror. We had done that before and we were both pretty into it. But as he kissed my neck, his eyes closed, and I felt something watching me. Like when you feel someone staring at the back of your head. Someone who doesn’t like you.
“I can’t do this.”
“Oookay. We don’t have to. Are you ok, Chrissy?” He looked at me using the mirror, disappointed, but mostly concerned. He rubbed my arm. “What’s up?”
I made brief eye contact and looked away. I didn’t want to see the thing I felt watching me.
“It’s nothing. I’m just not in the mood.”
I had been dry humping him for the past ten minutes.
I clapped my hands over my eyes. Blocking out our faces. “Look, I’m really sorry, Colin, but I just can’t.”
“Woah. Hey, it’s alright but tell me what’s going on.”
It is difficult to describe the sensation of going from happily crotch focused to the tense alertness of a prey animal in a moment. It is difficult to tell someone you really want to like you, maybe even love you, that you are in the process of losing you goddamn mind.
“I just…I just can’t. Let’s go to bed.”
Colin kissed my head and sighed. “Fine. Ok.”
I buried my face against his chest in the dark. Willing myself to feel safer and more comfortable because he was there. Because we were away from mirrors. He fell asleep before I did, and though the sensation of being watched lessened, it didn’t stop. When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt of a cold, dark place.
I took down or covered all the mirrors in my apartment. But I swore I would see movement in the reflections in my morning coffee, my dark phone screen, the rearview mirror of my car, and once even a customer’s acrylic manicure.
I couldn’t avoid my reflection. I was responsible for cleaning the bathroom at Cool Beans, which included cleaning the mirrors. I would watch it carefully as I wiped away the water spots. I watched to see if my face showed something besides tired wariness. I watched for flickers of movement.
Almost all of the time I saw nothing, and I swore that it was just stress.
But there were other times when the reflection of my arm did not move quite the same way as my arm on my side of the glass. There were times something would flutter behind me, an indistinct blur like a bird jetting past a window.
One time, I left a fingerprint on the mirror right after I finished cleaning it.
That day had been pretty ok. I hadn’t seen anything in reflections for awhile. Colin had stayed the night. (I told him I was on a mirror fast, which is apparently something sane people do sometimes.) I splurged on a bottle of wine to enjoy later. On the whole, things were looking up.
Without thinking, I went to wipe the print away. It didn’t budge. I applied more Windex and pressed harder. The surface of the mirror shined cleanly back at me, but the finger print remained.
I leaned in close, trying to figure out what was happening. I swiped my cleaning cloth over the print one more time, and realized there was a gap between my cloth and the finger print. It was on the other side of the mirror.
I stumbled back with a scream. Thoughtlessly, I looked at myself. My reflection smiled back at me.
I burst out of the bathroom. “Leticia, I’m sorry, but I have to go. I don’t feel well.”
“Of course, Chrissy. Yeah, you don’t look good. Go home and get some rest, okay?” Leticia went back to serving a customer before she even finished speaking.
I was out the door anyway.
I walked through the brisk fall air, taking the long way back to my apartment. The cool air was bracing, and I decided that this shit had been going on for way too long. Finally, I was angry. I was tired of jumping at nothing. I was tired of lying to my boyfriend. I was tired of not wearing make up to avoid seeing my face. Yes, these hallucinations were creepy, but they didn’t hurt. They didn’t tell me to murder people or anything. Maybe they were like Cassie—unnerving, but harmless.
I pulled down the paisley sheet I had tacked up over my bathroom mirror and turned on the light.
I looked at myself. Everything seemed normal. Reflected back at me was the same beige walls I wasn’t allowed to paint over, the corner of my Green Day poster in the hall, the top of the vanity—cluttered with lotion, hairspray, and a million other odds and ends that I lost there, and my unremarkable pissed off face.
“This shit has got to stop, understand me? Whoever you are, whatever you are, you are going to leave me alone.”
My words, my flushed face, were perfectly mirrored. There was no movement.
“Fuck you and your fucking mind games, Flicker Creeper Thing! It’s bullshit! I was perfectly happy, and you bust in with this shit, and I’m not having it any more.”
I placed my hands against the mirror and leaned in, hissing in my face, “You’re nothing. You’re all in my head, and even if you aren’t, you barely exist. So fuck off.”
Something pushed back against my hands. Cold and smooth at first, but slowly warming and wrinkling until it had the texture of skin. The flesh extended into fingers, lacing through my own in a death grip. And the thing kept pushing out of the mirror.
Flesh-colored arms extended, shiny and smooth before becoming matte with skin a downy hairs. The head began to emerge, forehead first. A slick sheet of glass hair swung loose before it fanned out into separate strands, covering the face as the thing pushed unstoppably forward, neck and shoulders extending through the surface of the mirror. It was out to the waist when it looked up, and the hair fell away.
It had no face, just a smooth, featureless expanse between forehead and chin.
It occurred to me that I was screaming, a sound of pure animal terror before it became a series of “No! No! No!” just like Cassie.
Soundlessly, a hole began opening where the face should have been. It was about the size of a dime and kept growing and growing until all I saw was its black emptiness.
I don’t know where I am now, and the details of my story get fuzzy unless I tell it to myself over and over. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but I haven’t needed a bathroom or food or water or rest, so it couldn’t have been that long. Right?
I think there are other people here… Well, other things here. I can hear them moving, but I never see them. They usually skitter like mice, soft and fast, in the background. I don’t try to find them. They don’t seem important.
It’s dark here, and it smells like old coins and wet concrete. It’s cold too, but that doesn’t bother me so much. Not the way it used to. But sometimes I sense warmth, and I’ll run as fast as I can toward it, and for just a moment I’ll hear human voices or music. I press my flat face against the smooth walls of this place, and flickers of light seep through so I can see the rich, vibrant world the people live in.
Once I thought I saw an eye that belonged to me. I saw only the eye, the muddy hazel I used to wish were blue, as an eyeliner brush flicked passed to create a perfect winged line.
I feel something stronger than hunger when I see those snatches of light, feel that warmth, and hear those people. I need to be out there with them. I need it so bad it hurts. I think I might hate them, and it consumes me.