Penny locks the bathroom door behind her and clutches the sink with trembling hands. She stares down at them, knuckles white against the pale ceramic, waiting for the nausea to pass. It always does, eventually.
Three years since he died, and I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. She shakes her head wearily. It’s ridiculous! How he still has the power to affect her after all these years is nothing short of tragic. I really need to find a therapist.
She takes a long hard look in the mirror. The face looking back at her is tired and worn. Not old though, at least, not yet. Makeup covers the crow’s feet around her striking blue eyes, disguises blemished cheeks and helps her lips appear full, almost beautiful. Most people would find her pretty.
If only she could see the same in herself, but Christopher took that part of her with him when he left the world.
There’s a large smudge on the mirror, roughly the size and shape of her thumb, just above the right side of her reflection. It’s dark and appears oily, in some ways resembling a tiny silhouette. Frowning, she takes a piece of tissue paper and attempts to wipe it clean.
The smudge slides away from her smoothly, as if skating on ice.
Screaming, Penny jerks her hand away and almost falls backward into the bathroom door. The smudge moves again, slipping and bouncing against the edges of the glass like a miniature puck on an air hockey table. It moves faster, passing from one end to the other in a blur.
She hears a scratching, metallic noise from the mirror and knows she’s going to lose her goddamn mind if she doesn’t get out of here right the fuck now! She claws frantically at the door behind her but can’t seem to remember how to turn the knob.
“Penny?!” A feminine voice calls outside the door. “Are you ok? What’s going on in there?”
Penny tries to respond, but the only sound she makes is a desperate, “Mmmmmhmm”, barely louder than a whisper.
Fists pound on the door, rattling it against the frame. Her name is called again, only this time she’s able to identify it with her sister, Judith. Tearing her gaze from the mirror, she turns and fumbles at the lock until it clicks. The knob turns, the door flies open and there stands Judith, staring at her with wide, terrified eyes.
Judith wastes little time in yanking Penny out of the bathroom by the arm. She’s carrying a rolled-up magazine in one raised, trembling fist. “Where is it?” Judith pokes her head in and looks around, her face pale but determined. “Where is the little fucker?”
Penny points a shaking finger. “Th-there. O-on the m-m-mirror. It moved when I . . .” Her voice trails off. There’s nothing on the mirror now. Only their frightened reflections.
Hesitantly, Judith steps in, reaches out and gently pulls on the corner of the mirror with a finger. It swings open on silent hinges, revealing the medicine cabinet behind. There’s a bottle of aspirin, a hairbrush, some Gas-x, Pepto, toothpaste and dental floss, but nothing else. Judith closes the cabinet and breathes out a sigh of relief.
“Did you see which way it went?”
Penny shakes her head. “No, one moment it was there, the next it wasn’t.”
Judith scoots a small trashcan on the floor with her foot, peering around it cautiously. “Well, those things are fast as hell when they want to be. Should we look for it?”
“What?” Penny stares at her sister dumbly. “Look for what?”
“The cockroach, Penny! What else? It’s probably hiding somewhere close.”
For a moment Penny continues to stare, then what Judith is implying sinks in. A roach! Was that what it was? Of course! What else could it have been?
Christ, it’s not like her to get so spooked over a bug. You had to be quick on your toes with those things if you lived in Miami. Some of them were likely as not to fly straight at your fucking face. She’d killed dozens of them in her lifetime.
WAS that a roach though? She shivers and pushes the thought away.
“Penny?” Judith asks. Slowly, as if touching a skittish animal, she places her palm on Penny’s back and rubs gently. “Are you alright?”
Penny flinches, taking a small step away. “Yeah. Yes, sorry Judith. I’m fine. God, I haven’t had a scare like that in years. I didn’t mean to frighten you too.”
Judith lets her hand drop to her side, looks at the magazine still rolled up in the other and gives her sister a rueful smile. “You don’t have to apologize. Those things gross me out too.”
“Right. Nasty little things.” Didn’t look like any roach I’ve ever seen. Ugh, shut up! Penny takes the magazine from Judith and sets it on the sink. “For later,” she says, answering Judith’s silent question. “Right now, I don’t want to be in here. Let’s go back to the kitchen, I could use some hot tea.”
When Penny goes to the bathroom the following morning, she’s all but convinced herself of the cockroach story. Still, she leaves the bathroom door open when she pees, unable to completely shake the dreadful feeling that creeps over her at the thought of trapping herself inside.
After finishing her morning bathroom routine, she heads to the living room and turns the tv on. Tiffani Thiessen is on the cooking channel making candied ginger apple pie again, which sounds delicious. Penny turns the volume up and heads to the kitchen to whip up some breakfast.
Out of grits, dammit! She thinks, rummaging through the pantry. She doesn’t feel like having oatmeal, and cereal has been out of the question for two years at least.
Penny loves cooking. It’s been the only worthwhile activity she wants to do. She’s become obsessed with it, watching the cooking channel every day and searching YouTube videos for new and interesting recipes to try. Spends as much time at Barnes & Noble as she does in the grocery store, reading everything from books about kitchen gadgets to chef-inspired meal plans.
But she’s considered an A list author by her peers, having published thirteen novels over the course of only seven years, almost two books per year. Mostly, she writes romances and romcoms, though her fantasy novel, ‘The Wandering Sorcerer’, was an international success. Still, she hasn’t written anything for the past three years.
Not since Christopher died.
Her eyes flick to the MacBook Air laying closed on the coffee table nearby. A thick layer of dust covers the laptop’s silver lid. I wonder if it still runs, she thinks, and shrugs self-consciously. When she’s ready to write again, she will, and not a moment before.
She pulls out a blue box of Krusteaz Light & Fluffy Buttermilk Pancake mix, staring at the red label in a confused sort of half-daze. I didn’t buy this.
It must have fallen into her grocery cart by accident. But if that were the case, she should have remembered putting it away. She’d never have knowingly brought it into the house. Did Judith bring it over at some point?
Krusteaz had been Christopher’s favorite brand. Since his death, Penny became nauseous at the thought of eating any pancakes, much less this brand.
She’d never been any good at making them anyway. Burnt the edges half the time, sometimes the whole thing. Christopher never understood. Claimed pancakes were the easiest thing in the world to make. Easier than buttered toast. He always wanted them on Saturday mornings with scrambled eggs and bacon, extra crispy. And if she messed them up . . .
Shuddering, Penny rubs a spot above her navel with her thumb as though suddenly sore. She shoves the box back in the pantry, nearly knocking over a few cans of peaches. Maybe just some sausage and eggs then. After that, she’ll head over to Publix to restock the pantry.
“Be sure to press the dough gently into the pan,” Tiffani was saying. “The key to a perfect crust is to make sure there are no air pockets between the dough and the pan. Now, trim the dough . . . “
That looks really tasty, I think I’ll pick up the ingredients and give it a go this evening. Perhaps she’ll invite Judith back over for a chicken and risotto dinner with apple pie and vanilla ice cream for dessert.
The refrigerator light illuminates shelves stocked with various leftovers, several bottles of water, about a half-gallon of 1% milk and whatever is stored in the produce drawers. There’s some bacon and sausage in the meat drawer, but no eggs.
God dammit! Penny slams the fridge door shut, then jumps at the resulting noise. For a moment she half-expects Christopher to shout at her from the bedroom. He always did hate being woken up in the morning. Funny how memories can stay with you, even after three years.
Guess we’re going to the store sooner than I thought. Penny walks back to the living room and turns the tv off.
The rising sun glares through a window onto the television’s black screen. When it cuts off, her reflection is looking back at her, disappointment painting her face.
A second face hovers just over her shoulder, staring with angry eyes. Its eyebrows are drawn down to near points, its mouth open in a silent scream of rage.
Eyes widening in surprised shock, Penny takes an involuntary step backward. Her feet tangle together and she trips, falling back with a shout. Pain flares up her back as she collides with the kitchen counter, knocking her breath away.
Her eyes squeeze shut against the pain, but she forces them open in near panic. Only her frightened face looks back from the tv screen’s reflection. Nothing else.
Penny laughs shakily. I’m losing my mind. Next thing you know, I’ll see shadows jumping out of the walls. The laughter trails off to a sudden croak. Not a funny thought.
A trick of the light, that was all. The second face had seemed oddly familiar though, hadn’t it? She tries to remember the shape of it, but it had been somewhat blurred. A little like her own, though not as narrow, and certainly more filled out. Those colorless eyes, though. She’d seen their shape before.
Just my imagination. Penny puts on a pair of flip flops and grabs her keys from the coffee table. After what happened yesterday, she must have been overly stressed and simply feeling a little jumpy. A trip to the grocery store now will be good for her. Ease her mind a little.
As the door clicks shut behind her, Penny realizes why the face had looked so familiar. So like her own, yet different. That had been Judith’s face. It made sense in a way. Her sister had come to see her yesterday and because of that she’d seen her face in the tv.
Only why did that sound like such utter bullshit?
Although Publix is only five miles up the road, it takes Penny nearly a half hour to get there. Miami traffic is always bad, one of the things she hates about living here. That, and the palmetto bugs. It’s warm ten months out of the year though, so she’s willing to accept some small setbacks without much complaint.
Today she gets lucky and finds a parking space up close. A sign on the front window reads, “Publix. Where shopping is a pleasure!” Spirits raised, she grabs her purse and walks under green neon lights into her favorite grocery store.
This is the one place Penny has always loved to go. Christopher hated shopping, especially for groceries. Thought it was beneath him. A woman’s chore, he liked to call it. She never minded, it meant she got to come here by herself, where thinking could be done in peace for an hour or two. As long as dinner was ready on time, Christopher never seemed to care how long she spent here.
The bakery is her first stop. The scent of baking bread is everywhere, causing her to regret not eating before leaving the condo. Her stomach growls loudly. Some fresh baguettes will do nicely.
A glass display contains much of the store’s finest baked goods. Everything from German chocolate cakes to Key Lime pies are stacked on shelves inside. A large straw basket atop the display has what she’s looking for: Bags of fresh brown baguettes.
Reaching for one of the bags, Penny catches her reflection in the glass. A figure stands behind her, blurred but almost recognizable. Again, it looks a lot like her sister. She turns around quickly but no one is there.
Sudden weakness causes her legs to buckle. She has to lean on the display case to keep from falling. What the hell is happening to me? First the tv this morning, and now the display case? Am I having a mental breakdown?
If so, why now? She’s managed to keep it together for the last three years, and before that, fourteen years in an abusive marriage. She’d heard of beaten wife’s syndrome, but that typically only affects women right after leaving their spouses, doesn’t it?
Plus, she never had it as bad as others. Sure, he’d hit her from time to time, always somewhere that could be covered up of course. Christopher had been a pro when it came to hiding his, ‘special disciplines’, but he was mostly a mental abuser, preferring to put his wife in place with words rather than fists.
Anyway, the hitting was rare. He’d only really snapped once, and she’d – but no, she doesn’t want to think about that.
Penny gives herself a mental shake. This isn’t happening. She looks back at the glass display. The figure is closer to her now, and more distinct. Swallowing down bile, she hurries away from the bakery.
Sleep, that’s what she needs. A little sleep, and she’ll be right as rain. And if not, she’ll call a shrink, take some pills or something. She’s better than this. Strong, like a fucking gorilla. Hasn’t she proven that already?
She passes the frozen food aisles. A long silver strip of metal runs the length of a case containing frozen hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and frozen turkeys. A thin, almost skeletal arm appears to glide across the shiny metal toward her, reaching, grasping, clutching.
Heart pounding, Penny moves faster, her pace almost a jog now. Her breath comes in short bursts, she’s beginning to feel lightheaded and hot. Not happening! NOT FUCKING HAPPENING! It’s not real!
“Mrs. Moore?” A voice says, cutting through the fog in Penny’s mind. “Are you alright? You look pale.”
Penny glances up and sees a familiar store clerk – Camila – staring at her with more than a little concern. She’s carrying a plastic crate filled with boxes of salted butter. Her worried expression tells Penny she must look very bad indeed.
I’m not crazy, Camila. Not crazy, not crazy, not crazy, not –
“Mrs. Moore?” Camila presses, setting the crate down on the floor.
Using every ounce of will she has; Penny forces her breathing to slow. She attempts a reassuring smile but gives up quickly. Camila will just have to settle for simple calm.
“Sorry Camila,” she says. “I . . . ” What the hell can I tell her without sounding like a lunatic? “I, um, need to use the bathroom? I’m feeling a little queasy.”
Camila looks visibly relieved. “Oh, ok. I thought someone was harassing you or something. Leave your cart here with me, I’ll keep an eye on it until you get back.”
Well, that worked out well, didn’t it? Penny doesn’t see she has another choice, so she thanks Camila and makes her way to the store’s bathroom.
The bathroom is freezing. Penny hugs herself, shivering, and rubs her arms vigorously. Christ, who’d ever heard of an a/c breaking down this way? She’d need to tell Camila about this.
Penny turns on the hot water and washes her face. She lets the heat warm her hands first, then presses them against her eyes and cheeks. Very soothing. Her heart rate is slower now, and she doesn’t feel breathless anymore. Maybe this is exactly what she needed.
Ripping off a sheet of paper towel, she dries her face and approaches the trash can. A putrid stench wafts out from inside. There’s an old plum laying atop discarded paper, wrinkled and bruised. Bits of purplish brown flesh show through holes in the skin, but it’s not rotting fruit Penny smells. More like rancid meat.
The memory rolls over her like a bulldozer.
Christopher lays crookedly on the Queen mattress they share, his right arm and the lower part of his leg hanging off the edge. The fitted sheet has been pulled off, his naked back lying on a sheet of clear plastic she’d placed underneath it. His torso is pale, face a light shade of pea soup.
There is puke everywhere. On his lips, his chin, his chest. It’s splattered on his underwear, the blankets, pillows, and sheets. As she watches, her mouth still throbbing from where his fist had cut her, some of it falls off his fingers to land on a second plastic sheet covering the carpet with a wet flop.
The second sheet had been trickier to place. She’d had to wait until he’d laid down to place it, hoping he’d be too inebriated to notice what she was doing while praying the poison wouldn’t take effect until after she’d put it in place. It’d been a near thing.
Blood runs from his eyes to his nose, down to the corner of his mouth, where it joins with the blood coming from his gums. From there it trickles down his chin before falling to a blood-soaked pillow.
She watches through one eye – the other has been swollen shut – as her husband’s gaze swivels toward her. His eyes are no longer filled with a twisted sense of justified rage, but with fear. He can’t speak, but his rolling eyes plead with her, begging her to help.
She listens with ears still ringing as his breath rattles in his chest, thick and poppy, as if forced through a small hole in a bowl of hot oatmeal. Listens with a sense of detached satisfaction as his breathing slows until the last of it escapes his lips as though squeezed from a child’s whoopee cushion.
A part of her is appalled by what she’s done, a part which will soon take over and leave her nearly paralyzed with indecision, but for now she feels only triumphant hate and glee.
Gone are the days of veiled and overt insults, of gaslighting and manipulation, of making her feel small, useless, and pathetic. No longer will he control what she wears, where she goes, what she writes about, or the money she’s made from her novels.
No more screaming, no more lying, no more demands. And no more hitting, no covering up bruises on her stomach and arms, pretending to friends and family to be sick for days at a time.
In that moment, Penny wonders what her life might have been like if only her mother had experienced the same elation.
The memory fades, the force of it leaving her weak and nauseous again. She turns back to the sink and is unsurprised to see the figure standing beside her in the mirror. Only it’s not her sister as she once thought. It is herself. A healthier, livelier version of herself. One free of pain, guilt, and madness.
The figure opens its mouth and screams in rage, and begins leaving the mirror, twisting and pulling itself out on the sink’s ceramic edges. Penny stands frozen in fear, unable to do anything but watch her doppelgänger separate from the mirror with a loud pop. It stands, grinning at her then, pointed teeth gleaming in the bathroom’s fluorescent light.
Penny’s other self is terrible to behold, but at the same time, beautiful. Its mouth opens and Penny knows it’s going to devour her. But after all, she deserves it. This is what she could have been. Strong, fierce, and beautiful, had she not allowed herself to be abused all those years. This is who she’s always wanted to be, but never had the courage to try.
Why fight it, then? The last three years have been nothing but a long cycle of anger and remorse. Better to end it now.
Her other self pauses, teeth inches from Penny’s forehead.
It pulls back, suddenly wary. It looks around, eyes narrowed in confusion. Then it locks its gaze on her, taking a faltering step forward.
NO! God dammit, you bitch! I said NO!
Her other reels backward as if slapped. Its mouth snaps closed and it lets out a high pitched, pathetic whine.
No, Penny thinks at it. I don’t deserve this at all. What happened to me is not my fault. It could have easily happened to someone else. There is nothing for me to feel guilty about, you hear me? Nothing!
The doppelgänger gives another whine and takes a shuffling step forward, but this time there is no anger in her face. Instead, fresh tears well up in her eyes. Her cheeks go pale and spotty with red blemishes. She’s hurt, desperate, and afraid.
Now Penny understands. She knows what she must do.
Spreading her arms wide, Penny steps toward her other. Her own tears begin tracing familiar paths down her cheeks. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers, as she takes herself into her arms and embraces her. Heat flashes through her body, but it’s not unpleasant. For the first time in years, she feels whole.
When she straightens, the other is gone. Penny inhales a shaky breath and forces the air out in a rush. Nodding to her reflection, she leaves the bathroom feeling at peace.
She has the sudden urge to go home and start writing a novel.