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The Enemy in the Mirror

by Sandra Miller

Table of Contents
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
part 2 of 4

I woke up on the fifth morning. Trevyn slept in a chair beside the bed, his head slumped to one side at an angle that looked extremely uncomfortable. Towels covered me, stiff in that once-was-wet manner. I wanted to push them off of me, but I didn’t even have the strength for that. In my weakened state, the frustration was more than I could handle, and hot tears slid down my face.

Trevyn jerked suddenly awake with a start, looking fearfully all around him. “Ellena? Are you all right? Where are you?” His wild gaze finally landed on me on the bed. “You’re awake,” he observed with surprise. “How are you feeling? Ellena, why are you crying?”

“I’m sorry,” I sniffled, and managed to raise a hand to wipe at my tears. “I’m just so weak...”

He rubbed at his neck and leaned over, pulling towels off of me and piling them by the bed. “Honey, you’ve got to expect that. Do you realize how sick you were? You didn’t know who I was — you didn’t even know who you were.”

Something in the way he said that rang flat. “What do you mean?”

Trevyn glanced at me sidelong. “You thought you were an Allacore,” he said with a nervous laugh. I sat there in stunned silence. I had thought I was an — Allacore? That was... was... unthinkable! Allacores were monsters, just monsters. I had more respect for the roaches that occasionally wandered into my bathroom than for Allacores. There was nothing in the world I despised more than Allacores. Nothing.

Trevyn took in the look on my face. “Don’t look so upset. I know you’re a xenophobe, but you were hallucinating, after all. Here, sit up a little and I’ll take that towel out of your hair.”

I struggled to cooperate, but in the end Trevyn put one arm behind me to hold me up, and used the other one to unwind the towel from my hair. I sighed in relief and flopped back on the pillows. Only then did I see the look on his face. “What? What’s wrong?”

“Ellena... your hair...”

Panic gripped my throat. “What? What about my hair? Trevyn, talk to me!”

Without a word Trevyn reached over to the dresser and gave me a hand mirror. I took one last glance at his expression, and faced my reflection. The world seemed to stop, my gasp seemed to fill the room. The mirror fell from my hand.

My hair was white. Completely white, white like fresh-fallen snow. I looked up at Trevyn. He looked pretty much like I felt, like maybe we had both eaten too much cotton candy before getting on the tilt-a-whirl. “What happened to me?”

He shook his head slowly, picking the mirror up off the bed. “I don’t know, Ellena. I don’t know.”

* * *

In the aftermath of that traumatic discovery, I started down the long road to recovery. Trevyn fingered my hair and told me it was probably just some weird side effect of my illness that would reverse itself in time, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe that. My hair was white — beyond blonde, and not at all like old people’s white hair. Sitting alone with the hand mirror, I had to admit to myself that I had only seen hair like that one place before — on an Allacore.

A yawning pit opened in my stomach. I hated seeing any similarities at all between myself and those awful creatures, and I spent all morning working up the nerve to share my observation with Trevyn when he came home for lunch.

“Allacore hair?” He looked as shaken as I had been by the idea. “I don’t know... I still say it’s because you were sick. Why in the world would you suddenly have Allacore hair?”

I could feel the blood drain from my face. “Ohmigod... that’s it. It was that device.”

“What device?” Trevyn eyed me as if he feared I might start raving again.

“That telescope thing! That thing I used on the Allacore — didn’t she say it was going to take my power and give it to her?”

He sat down. “Oh, Lord. If that thing transfers power... and you left it on her until it killed her...”

“I don’t know.” I swallowed hard. “I didn’t know what would happen. Do you think that’s why I got sick?”

He considered it. “Maybe. That, or something you transferred.”

That conversation was enough to give me nightmares. I couldn’t stop myself from reaching the inevitable conclusion: if the device transferred power, and I left it turned on the Allacore commander until she died, then along with whatever power I had received I had also received an Allacore’s life force. And if I had transferred an Allacore’s life force into myself, then white hair was probably the least of my troubles. But I didn’t say anything more on the subject to Trevyn. In my mind, though, I kept a list of troubling new symptoms...

My hair stayed milky white. Over the course of the next few days, my eyes faded to a steely, intense gray that was almost metallic. Trevyn suggested uncertainly that the new color of my hair must have been making my eyes look different. All I could manage for a response to that was a strange smile.

I ate normally, but my strength was very slow to return. My face was haunting and gaunt, and my whole body looked skeletally thin. When I finally could stand up out of bed, I was a full eight inches taller than I had been — and I was almost six feet tall before! My cheekbones were higher, and more prominent. My fingers were noticeably longer. My ears were taking on a strange shape — almost as if they were trying to come to a point on top.

I faced myself in the mirror over the dresser one day, and realized with a chill that the traits that made me recognizably me were slipping away. Already my own mother would have had to look twice to know me — I would have had to look twice to know me.

I couldn’t deny what was happening to me. These traits that were slowly making me unrecognizable were Allacore traits. The abyss yawned open in my stomach, and my hands were click with cold sweat. Allacore traits! Was the Allacore life force I had absorbed slowly dominating my own? The Allacore invasion threatening the world as a whole was taking place on a more immediate scale in the details of my own face, the features of my own body. And as I looked into the steely Allacore eyes in the mirror that looked levelly back at me, I knew that Trevyn couldn’t protect me from this. No one could protect me from this, and the consequences were sure to be disastrous to anyone who tried.

I knew what I had to do. I dug out my old canvas backpack and filled it with everything it would hold — a few changes of clothes, my wallet, toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush. I threw my makeup bag disdainfully back on the counter. What use had an Allacore for makeup? All the creams and powders on all the drugstore shelves in the world couldn’t disguise the changes in me. Surely it would be the height of vanity to use makeup to try to make this face beautiful — my problems went far beyond how I looked. I stuffed a thin blanket into the bag and zipped it shut.

I knew I had to leave, but I had no idea where to go. I walked through the apartment one last time, trying to memorize every detail. I wished I could say goodbye to Trevyn, but I knew it was better this way. The less Trevyn knew about my situation, the better off he would be. He was scheduled to graduate at the end of this semester. With his political savvy and ambition, I knew he would go far — if he didn’t have some half-human half-Allacore freak holding him back. I wiped the tears roughly off my face with a hand that felt too large to be mine, and locked the front door behind me.

* * *

I didn’t even look at a map; I just picked a road and followed it out of town. Sixteen miles later I came to a small town. Sixteen miles — hardly worth starting the car for, and it had taken me most of the day to get there. My feet had big puffy blisters, my face was sunburned, and I ached in places I hadn’t known I had. At the first diner I came to I stopped.

The bells on the door jingled when I pushed it open, and a woman’s voice from the back called, “Be right with you, honey.” I tossed my backpack onto the bench seat of a booth, and edged myself in beside it. Vinyl red and white checked tablecloths covered the tables, and a neon clock advertising some beer or another hung over the counter. One of the neon letters was on the fritz, and buzzed on and off incessantly. It gave me a headache to watch it, so I looked away.

The woman who came to the table had hair dyed so red it had a pink cast to it, and her lipstick was very red indeed. The crow’s feet by her eyes told a story that her pancaked makeup couldn’t hide. Her name was embroidered in blue thread on her pink uniform dress: “LaVerne.” She smiled at me, though, and her smile seemed genuine. “What’ll it be, hon?”

I hadn’t even glanced at the menu — I probably couldn’t afford half of what was on there anyway. The few dollars I had in my wallet had to last me indefinitely now. What on earth had I gotten myself into? “Do you have grilled cheese?” I said at last, uncertainly.

“Course. You have anything to drink?”

“Just water,” I said softly, for some insane reason embarrassed by my order.

“Sure thing. I’ll have that out for you in a sec, hon.” She ripped the top sheet off her order pad and slipped her pen behind her ear, turning back toward the kitchen. “Got a big spender here for you, Charlie,” I heard her say. She clipped the order onto the string stretched above the length of the counter.

I sighed and picked up a packet of sugar, playing with it idly. My situation was a good deal worse than I wanted to admit, even to myself. I had nowhere to sleep, very little money, and no way to earn more. What was I going to do?

I toyed with the sugar packet, but it was offering no answers.

I had arrived at no great conclusions when LaVerne brought my meal; a grilled cheese sandwich cut into triangles on a chipped plate piled high with broken potato chips. She set my water down beside the plate. It was in a big plastic cup that said “Enjoy Coke” in very faded white lettering, and it had a slice of lemon stuck on the edge. “Here you go, sugar,” she said. “Need anything else?”

I hesitated, considering all of the things I might tell her, and finally shook my head. “No, thanks, this looks great.” It was the truth. The sandwich was my first meal that day, and it looked great.

I ate in contemplative silence, turning my options over in my mind. I couldn’t go back to Trevyn’s without endangering him; I couldn’t let him take that risk. I had to stand on my own. But I was almost out of money, and I had no place to stay. I was going to have to find a job, first of all. After I had a source of income, I could worry about finding somewhere to stay. It would overwhelm me if I tried to worry about everything at once.

Before I realized it, I had cleaned the plate, and drained the last of my water. As if the clatter of the ice in the empty cup was a signal, LaVerne appeared at the table. “How was everything? You need some more water?” She held the pitcher ready by the cup.

“Um... no, thanks. It was great.” I hesitated as she gathered my plate and cup. “I’m new here, and... do... do you know where I might find some work?”

She eyed me a moment, the plate and cup in one hand and the pitcher of ice water in the other. A large drop of condensation gathered on the bottom of the pitcher and fell to the floor while she considered me. I watched it, fighting an urge to squirm under that silent gaze.

“I’m probably crazy,” she said finally. “I don’t know you from Adam, and it’s plain that you’ve got trouble. But for some crazy reason I feel like I should help you.” She shifted the pitcher in her grasp as if it was straining her wrist. “Lord knows we could use the help. Charlie and me, we run this place ourselves, you know. Was easier when we were younger, but now... well, I could really use another pair of hands to help me out around here.”

I stared at her, afraid to believe what I was hearing. “You’d let me work here — for you?”

She shrugged, curbing the gesture short before she slopped water out of the pitcher. “Call me crazy. Like I said, we need the help.”

Flustered, I scrambled around in my backpack for my wallet. “I — thank you... how much do I owe you?”

She gestured derisively with the water pitcher. “On the house. Look, I know it ain’t my place to say, but it’s plain you’re on hard times. Charlie and me, we were on hard times too once...” She trailed off for a second. “Anyway, point is, there’s a little room back of the diner. It isn’t much, but it’s a bed when you’re sleepy, and a shower when you’re dirty.”

I was flabbergasted. And I couldn’t help but wonder if she would have taken me in if she had known what I was, what I had done. “I... I can’t thank you enough,” I said, as clearly as I was able. “You’re very kind.”

“And you’re very tired.” LaVerne waved that pitcher my direction again. “Why don’t you go ahead to the back and get yourself settled in...” she paused expectantly, and I realized that I had never told her my name.

“Ellena,” I said, cramming my wallet back into my backpack and zipping it shut. “Ellena Williams.”

She nodded in my direction. “I’m LaVerne Spencer. My husband Charlie is the cook, I expect you’ll see him tomorrow. We open at six. See you then?”

“With bells on,” I assured her, smiling in spite of myself.

* * *

And so I worked at Charlie’s Diner, six a.m. to ten p.m. every day except Sunday, when we were closed. The hours were long, the work was tiring, and the pay was minimal, but I was more grateful than I could say. The little room behind the diner was my haven, and in the cloudy mirror over the bathroom counter, I watched the disconcerting changes in myself continue.

My thick white hair grew unbelievably fast — it was already halfway down my back. I wore it pulled up under a hairnet at work, and no one seemed to notice its incredible color. But the worst shock came when I went to wash my face one evening. When I stuck my hands under the running water, there were no fingernails on my fingers! The tips of my fingers were forming deep cracks in them, like you might expect in the middle of winter when your skin was too dry. I bought a pair of crocheted lace gloves at a thrift store and wore them constantly to cover my hands. What could I do? I was inexorably becoming that which I hated most.

Toward the end of my second week at the diner, a stranger in a dark suit came in early for dinner. He wore dark sunglasses even indoors, and carried a black leather briefcase that stayed on the table while he ate. He regarded me from behind those sunglasses with a long, steady gaze that made me acutely uncomfortable. I took his order and stayed away from his table, but I could still feel that prickly gaze burning into my back as I worked. I dropped his strip steak dinner on the table with a clatter, and backed a step away from him. “Anything else?”

“No, no, this looks fine. I’m famished,” he said, ignoring the food. He barreled on with his one-sided conversation before I could retreat to the kitchen. “I’m on my way back to D.C. I’ve been investigating an Allacore incident over at the university.”

“Really?” I croaked. My hands felt clammy.

“Sure enough, and who would have thought such a thing would happen way the hell out here? That Trevyn Blaine, though, he handled it exceptionally. I guess you’ve probably heard of him, everyone has by now. A real hero.”

I nodded numbly. What was he doing? How could I get out of this conversation?

To be continued...

Copyright © 2005 by Sandra Miller

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