The face staring back from the mirror was ugly. It was the face of a murderer. It was the face of a sixteen-year-old girl.
Lisa steeled herself as she put her makeup on; it was hard to escape her thoughts and her dreams. The eyeliner, the blush, the mascara; it was all a mask, not to put forth a good face to the world, but to hide her face from herself.
She did her best to ignore the smooth cheeks, the deep brown eyes, and the long, straight, black hair that she knew were her own features. She lengthened her eyelashes, to hide the brown eyes. She applied blush, to change the cheeks. She curled her hair, to make it less like the hair of a killer.
Lisa closed her eyes when she finished, and simply sat before her mirror, preparing herself for another day at school.
Her mother’s voice filtered through the closed door to her room and into her bathroom. She sighed and got up, though she didn’t feel ready to face the day. It wasn’t a new feeling for her; she never felt ready. Her feet tread the carpets of her house nonetheless, down the stairs and into the kitchen.
Her mother was bustling about, a smile on her face. Lisa almost had trouble seeing her mother; they looked more and more alike each day. She hated seeing even the smallest vestiges of the killer in her mother’s face.
One key difference was apparent, though. Her mother smiled all the time. Lisa forced a smile onto her own face, her now-habitual morning grimace for the sake of any members of her family still home when she came downstairs. They didn’t know about her. Nobody knew the truth about her.
“Hello, honey,” her mother said, glancing over her shoulder at Lisa as she entered the kitchen. “I made some pancakes for your brother, and there are two left over if you want them.” She gestured at the table, where a plate sat with the steaming pancakes. A glass of orange juice stood next to the plate.
Lisa nodded her thanks. “Okay.” She cleared a stack of newspapers from her chair before sitting down. The pancakes were perfect.
“What classes do you have today, honey?” her mother asked, finally settling down and taking a chair across the table.
Lisa chewed a mouthful of pancakes before answering. “Today? Uh, math. Web design, marketing, and history. That’s it.” She wasn’t thrilled with her schedule during this new semester. It seemed as if every autumn of her life was destined to be miserable.
Of course, nothing would ever be worse than when she was seven, when she went to the playground on an early fall day.
“That’s nice. Marketing and web design sound fun!” Her mother’s enthusiasm broke through her bleak thoughts and brought her back to the breakfast table.
“Mmm,” she responded, preferring to stuff another bite of pancakes into her mouth rather than answer directly. Her mother wouldn’t understand why no class could be interesting, anymore.
She hurried through breakfast, feeling the strain of the façade she put on for her mother. Her smile had just started to slip when she grabbed her backpack and keys and rushed to her car.
* * *
Marketing was the hardest class, for her. Not because the subject matter was difficult, but because the people in the class were nice. Two girls—Kate and Katie—insisted upon becoming her friends. They talked to her every day, despite her lack of interest and her dour responses. No amount of one-syllable retorts seemed enough to deter those two pretty faces.
“Have a good weekend, Lisa?” Katie pressed, her smile too wide by far and her eyes much too excited to hear about Lisa’s social life. “Do anything fun?”
Lisa kept her eyes down; she had no desire to fuel Katie’s intrusion upon her privacy. In any event, Katie truly would not want to know what was going on with her outside of school.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t aware of that; neither was Kate, who sat down on Lisa’s other side and piped in. “Yeah! Why didn’t you come bowling with us? It was a lot of fun!”
Lisa, finding herself boxed in, finally glanced at Kate. Her brown eyes shone with the same interest as Katie’s blue ones on her other side. The two of them could have been sisters: the same straight brown hair; the same short, round nose; the same thin lips. The only real difference lay in their eye color…and their expressions usually mirrored each other enough to erase that.
“I was busy,” she said. As usual, her flat tone did nothing to stem the tide.
“Busy? With what?”
“Yeah, what were you doing instead?” Katie chimed in.
Lisa clenched her eyes shut, hoping that their teacher would enter the room and call for quiet right at that moment. She didn’t, of course.
“I had family in town.” One of the advantages of never hanging out with them was that they never knew when she was lying…which was usually the case.
“Aww, lame!” Kate said. “That sucks; I’m sorry!”
Lisa grunted in reply, and stared straight ahead. The two of them had chosen tactful places: she couldn’t really look away from one without looking at the other. The teacher was late, now, and she felt claustrophobic stuck between the two of them. Their incessant questions drove her to the point of an outburst.
“Stop!” she shouted, glaring back and forth at them.
The room quieted immediately, and Lisa felt her face heat as twenty-odd students stared at her. She couldn’t stand it; it felt as though each one of them knew the exact reason for her discomfiture. She grabbed her bag, stood up—knocking her chair over in the process—and fled, blushing.
The hallway in which her locker was located stood blissfully empty. Lisa calmed down as she slowed her pace; her feet no longer sped over the red-and-blue tiles of the east wing. Her face still felt hot, and her breathing was faster than normal, but she felt in control once again. She had nearly broken down. Her memories of past episodes still haunted her, still drove her to avoid any such confrontations. Her parents had understood—somewhat, as they didn’t know the whole story—and helped to keep her steady when the guilt rose up.
That hadn’t happened in three years, though.
She dialed in the combination to the locker that she shared with her only real friend. Jordan was the only girl she felt genuine affection for, and so she felt comfortable sharing a locker. Jordan didn’t know everything, however, not even as much as her parents did. And so, she didn’t know the dangers of keeping a pink-trimmed mirror hanging on the inside of the locker door.
Lisa shrieked when she opened the door and saw her reflection. To her eyes, her cheeks were not flushed and hot; no, they were blue and puffy and cold, the cheeks of a strangulation victim.
She lost her footing, stumbling backward, away, away from the horrid visage that shone back from the pane of glass. It is not real. It is not real, she repeated to herself over and over and over again. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t happen, not here, not in school, where everyone could see and judge and denounce her for the fiend she knew herself to be.
Eyes squeezed shut, she fell across the hall and slammed into the far row of lockers. The metal hinges dug into her back, granting her lucidity in her moment of madness. The lockers were real, yes. The face was not.
“Are—are you all right?” a voice asked.
Lisa gasped; she’d thought she was alone in the hall. Her eyes opened and found a short, balding man with a concerned look on his face. He stood by her open locker, one arm resting on the door. He seemed too nonchalant in that position for the unease in his voice.
“I’m okay. I’m okay,” Lisa mumbled, putting a hand to her head. “I…just got dizzy.”
“I think you should see the nurse, young lady. You nearly fell, just then.”
Lisa shook her head. She refused to let the experience beat her. “I’m fine.”
The man squinted at her, wrinkling his forehead in an almost comical fashion. Lisa fought to keep from cracking a smile; it would have been inappropriate in the situation.
“Well…if you say so. You should get back to class, at the least.”
“I’ll do that.”
His expression was almost too much for her to take. She spun on her heels and walked away from him. The terror that had consumed her moments before struggled to rise up again as soon as she moved beyond sight of the funny little man. She forced her legs to keep moving, to escape the fear. Her car awaited in the parking lot in front of the school.
Upon approaching her car, though, her trepidation piled upon her: driving would require looking into her mirrors. Normally it wasn’t an issue, but it was on her mind now. She inserted her key into the handle with a shaking hand and pulled the door open despite an arm that felt weighed down by steel.
Lisa heaved a deep breath. She sat down with a wary eye on the side of the rear-view mirror; she made sure to keep her head tilted to the side, so she wouldn’t have to see herself reflected.
Driving home proved to be a challenge. She found herself looking over her shoulders almost constantly, and her fear of changing lanes was somewhat problematic when she had to turn into her neighborhood. She breathed out, relaxing and sitting a little easier in her seat, when she drove past the familiar red sign and pine trees at the entrance to her street. She hadn’t looked once in her mirror. The pale grey driveway leading up to her house never looked more inviting.
She reached forward and twisted the key in the ignition, relishing the silence when the engine quieted. She slumped forward in her seat and rested her forehead on the steering wheel, her eyes closed. They flew open almost immediately; she had seen the hideous image from the locker mirror on the back of her eyelids. Her mind seemed determined to summon her most horrifying memories.
Lisa screamed and slammed her open palms on the dashboard. A wave of horrid, repulsive, brutal images overcame her. A swing set, sitting too still in the cool September air. Yellow and green leaves on the trees above. A crowd of yelling parents. One little, six-year-old, blonde-haired girl with the chains of the rightmost swing twisted around her neck.
“No, no, no, no…” she mumbled. “This isn’t happening. Not again, not AGAIN!”
She started shaking. Her hands gripped the wheel. Her knuckles whitened. She felt lightheaded, and her vision narrowed. The blackness that constricted her sight was welcome; it obliterated the memories of her worst day.
She passed out, face into the steering wheel.
Loud tapping pulled her from the dark. She turned her head, slowly regaining consciousness, and saw her mother peering through the window. Wrinkles painted her forehead: she was concerned.
Lisa sat up, unbuckled herself, and opened the door. Her right cheek burned, and she knew that there was a red imprint of the wheel there.
“Honey? You’re home early. Is everything okay?”
“…hmm? Oh, yeah. Yeah. I—I just wasn’t feeling well.”
She pulled herself out of the car and managed to stand in front of her mother. Her head felt thick and her knees threatened to fold under her. She reached out a hand and steadied herself against the car.
“Not feeling well? What happened?”
“I…don’t want to talk about it. I need to go inside.” Lisa straightened up and tottered up the front walk and through the open front door. Her mother trailed behind her, peppering her with needless and annoying questions.
She collapsed straight onto the blue-checkered couch in the family room. She buried her face into the cushions and tried to ignore her mother’s high voice. Some distant part of Lisa’s brain registered that she heard her mother talking about calling her father home from work early. She grunted a distracted reply while she marshaled her thoughts and emotions.
The sun fell in the sky while she watched, lying on the sofa with her head turned. She breathed in a slow, controlled, conscious rhythm and savored the peace of being alone; her mother had long since left her in the family room and went into the kitchen to start dinner.
The sun smiled down on her. The trees in their back yard stood in a wall, their leaves already mostly dark reds and brilliant yellows. The sun tinted the sky similar colors when it reached the tops of the trees. At least there was one thing about autumn that was wonderful. Nothing was more beautiful than fall in Minnesota. Lisa submerged herself in the tranquility of the moment. Nobody tried to talk to her. Most of all, nothing plotted to send a reflection of that face at her.
She fell asleep there, for a bit, and was woken by the sound of the heavy door into the garage slamming. Her father was home.
She blinked her grainy and sluggish eyes before sitting up. The dry feeling wouldn’t go away, so she rubbed them with a fist.
While she was still gathering herself together and preparing to emerge from the bliss of sleep, she heard her parents talking in the kitchen. She had no doubt that her mother was giving her father the rundown: home early from school, passed out in the driveway, then asleep on the couch.
Just as she stood up, she heard the dreaded word: “episode.” Her father, at least, had an inkling of what was going on.
The all-too-familiar panic assaulted her again. She had to lean back down and steady herself on the couch arm with a shaking hand. All she had to do was wait. She knew her father. He would want to talk to her. He always had, every time her memories rose up to overwhelm her during her childhood and preteen years.
Thus, all she did was sigh and close her eyes when his voice barked out of the kitchen. “Lisa? What happened today?” The man himself followed the voice.
She opened her eyes to the sight of his lined and tanned face. He wore a business suit, of course—just home from work, and all—but she always pictured him in his bright orange hunting jacket. It was more suited to him. The mug of tea in his hand seemed even more foreign. He only looked natural holding a thermos or a beer.
When she didn’t respond immediately and stared somewhat vacantly at him, he spoke again. “Lisa, honey?”
She started, breaking from her thoughts. “I’m okay, dad. It was just a bad day, and I wasn’t feeling well in class.”
“Was it another episode?”
“I—“ she looked away. She couldn’t deny it, couldn’t lie directly to his face. Instead, she sealed her mouth.
He nodded in a knowing fashion and pulled her into a hug. “We can have you see the therapist this weekend.”
She shook her head, and he released her from the hug in surprise at the force of her motion.
“Lisa, listen to me,” he pulled her over by the glass coffee table and sat her down on the couch again. He extricated his mug from the fingers that still gripped her left arm and placed it on the table. “This could be serious. The doctor said that there was always a chance of these things resurfacing.”
She shook her head again, adamant.
He bowed his head and rubbed a hand over his face. She looked away, uncomfortable at the sight of the thin spot in his black hair. It reminded her too much of old age and human mortality.
Her glance away was a mistake. She looked down by reflex: two years in a big high school had taught her that much.
However, she looked down, and directly at the coffee table.
The face staring up at her from the glass was not her own, not as she saw it. Swollen cheeks puffed out under terrified, bloodshot eyes. The red in those eyes clashed with the blue skin of her face.
Lisa shrieked. She shot to her feet, grabbed the mug from the table, and smashed it down into the glass with both her hands. The table shattered, shards flying in a dozen directions, embedding themselves in the carpet, her hands, her father’s pant legs.
“NO!” she screamed, “Not again, I don’t want to see that again!”
Her father stared at her, aghast and somehow unaware of the glass that had sliced his shins.
She couldn’t stand his eyes on her. She turned and ran, through the kitchen and up the stairs to her room. She slammed the door behind her and ran to her bathroom. The face stared, accusing, out from the mirror above the sink, too.
The anger, the guilt, the pure emotion was too much for her to contain. With a wordless roar, Lisa snatched up the heavy makeup box on the shelf and dashed it into the mirror. The image was obliterated in a shower of glittering angles.
A banging on her door penetrated the red haze in which she stood panting. Her father was yelling; she couldn’t understand him.
Her door crashed open a moment later and he came through with a curious and frightening mix of concern, anxiety, and anger on his face.
She forced herself to meet his glare, and even before he spoke, she saw in those brown eyes that he knew the truth about the little girl on that playground. He always had.