I hold the crayon to the mirror, ready to swipe it across my reflection’s neck just as my husband, Tomas, instructed. Make a quick horizontal line, then break the crayon against the glass. Snap it like you would your reflection’s neck.
I’ve chosen the shade closest to my skin tone because it feels fitting for the occasion, the brown that I’d had to explain to our kindergartener was not “the skin color” crayon. Not everyone has skin as dark as ours, and some have darker. I imagine similar conversations in other households, about other crayons.
Now I’m just stalling.
My mirror-self’s face shows more signs of the blurring. Hazy eyes. Smudged lips. Still a face, for now, and doesn’t that count for something? My fingers quiver around the crayon.
• • • •
Two days prior.
Two days before my face will start morphing into a low-resolution facsimile of myself.
Tomas and I stood at the bathroom counter getting ready for the day. For some reason, he had taken it upon himself to clean the mirror last night while I put Penelope to bed. He’d hardly spoken a word since. He spread shaving cream over his face and stared at his reflection—studied it, his bloodshot eyes vacillating between fear and longing from behind his glasses. He’d done a sloppy job, smearing the bulb of his nose with white foam. He looked like our daughter when she bites into a cupcake and gets frosting all over. He brought his razor up to his neck with a strange, shuddering breath. A moment later, he nicked his chin but didn’t seem to notice, as if the act of shaving took more out of him than an actual cut.
“You’re bleeding,” I mumbled around my toothbrush.
He dropped his gaze to his sink for a moment, then fetched some tissue and pressed it to the cut. “I’m going to grow out my beard.”
I spit into my sink. “You haven’t done that since Penelope was a baby.”
He didn’t reply. Just studied his chin in the mirror, watching the tissue bloom red.
“Your facial hair better not hide your dimples.”
He ignored me. He ignored his contact lenses. He washed his face off and left. The sweet fragrance of his shaving cream lingered like a specter.
• • • •
The next day I caught Tomas scribbling away at the art table with some of Penelope’s markers. Normally he’d do anything to get out of coloring with her, now he was doing it without her while she watched a movie in the family room. Awkward self-portraits, from the look of it, with a wide range of facial expressions. A cartoony Tomas smiling, frowning, confused or apologetic (I couldn’t tell which), and his current masterpiece, puffing his cheeks out and perhaps whistling?
He paused to shove his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Alicia, can I ask you something?”
I cocked my head. “Of course.”
“How do I look to you?”
I crossed my arms and leaned against the doorframe. “Like you’ve taken a very sudden interest in art.”
He glanced up at me. “But nothing noticeably different? Physically?”
I checked him over, this curious husband of mine with the faintest signs of “dad bod” and those awesome dimples. “Nothing besides that stubble you’re growing.”
Tears gleamed in the corners of his eyes.
“Tomas, what’s going on? What’s bothering you?”
He shot me a pointed look, as if I should already know the answer. “You ever get the feeling something wants to drag you away?”
A sudden shiver made me jerk up from the doorframe, putting my full weight on my feet. “What do you mean? Drag me where exactly?”
“Wherever it thinks you belong. Wherever it thinks your home should be.”
I snorted. “We both grew up right here.”
“It’s just, I got this feeling a few days ago. This freezing numbness, like someone had dropped an ice cube down my back. And this weird sensation, like somebody wanted me gone.” He fidgeted with the marker. “Then I noticed my face getting blurry in the mirror.”
I hugged my ribs. “Mi cariño, you’re freaking me out.”
“So, you haven’t felt an icy, dragging-away feeling?”
I shook my head, speechless.
Relief covered his face. “Good. It doesn’t have your reflection yet.” He offered me a chocolate brown marker, the color of his eyes. And mine and Penelope’s.
I sank onto a chair next to him, unsure of what to draw or how to keep up appearances around him, but unwilling to pursue the topic. I didn’t want to question my husband’s sanity. I settled for sketching my own face in silence, like him. I had this sense now of unwelcomeness. But it had to be because he’d put the idea in my mind. It must be.
• • • •
I felt off the whole next day, like in grade school when a friend would tickle my spine while reciting a rhyme to give me the “shiveries.”
It didn’t help when Penelope approached me a little before bedtime for assistance with the scissors.
“At this hour?” I asked.
“It’s for Science.” She resembled her daddy so much, melting my heart with those puppy dog eyes, a button version of his nose, his dimples.
“Fine, we can have a little later bedtime than usual. What supplies do we need?”
Her kindergarten class was studying light. Yesterday she’d drawn herself in crayon with a dotted outline shape lying behind her. Supposed to be her shadow, but it looked too much like the chalk outline of a corpse to me. I hadn’t said anything. Today, I helped her cut out a printout of a pointing hand, tape it sticking upward to a piece of paper like an easel, and find a flashlight. We turned off the lights, and she angled the beam at the hand from different points around the room. Each time, the dark, stretching outline of a pointing finger seemed to seek me out. My skin crawled as the shape inched along the carpet, closer and closer, thrown in stark relief against the only light in the room.
It doesn’t have your reflection yet.
“Are you okay without your nightlight for this, mi hijita?”
She giggled and turned the flashlight up to her neck, illuminating her version of daddy’s strong chin. Later, after we cleaned up the science project and moved into her bathroom to brush her teeth, she pointed to her mouth. “I have a wiggly tooth.”
I tried moving that tiny bead of an incisor. “Doesn’t seem loose to me. Not yet, anyway.”
She frowned Tomas’s frown. “It is too.”
I placed a hand on her shoulder, so small and bony beneath her pajamas. “I believe you. You can feel it before we see it, that’s all. You’ll have a new smile in no time.”
“I want the tooth fairy to come.”
“Patience, mi hijita.”
How could she sleep knowing a mysterious being wanted to invade our home to claim a part of her? Again, that icy chill overtook me. I half expected to see my breath puffing right there in her bathroom. I caught my eye in the mirror.
I saw it, the first signs of smudging, as though I needed glasses, but only to see myself. Everything else remained in sharp focus, the shower curtain behind me, each ring holding it up, my pajamas laying atop my own shoulders. It looked as if the mirror were fogging, but only over the part with my head. The distortion followed me as I moved, even after I wiped the surface with my sleeve.
I completed Penelope’s bedtime as fast as I could and hurried toward the living room. In all the hubbub with the science experiment, I’d forgotten to close the entryway blinds. The combination of darkness outside and light inside the house made my smudgy reflection leer at me from the window. As I approached it, I avoided looking too long at myself—or rather, at that version of me superimposed onto the dark vision of the outside like a wandering spirit. I dealt with the blinds and dashed out of the foyer, my hands clammy and shaking.
I found Tomas at the art table making more of those portraits.
“I know what you were talking about yesterday,” I said. “I believe you.”
Through the lenses of his glasses, he teared up as though he’d longed for those words and thought they’d never come. “Thank you.” He swallowed to steady his voice. “Here’s all you need to do.”
I’d never before trusted anyone who said that to me.
“I did some research,” he continued, “online.”
He explained the crayon ritual. How anyone had ever figured out to draw a line of crayon across their reflection’s neck and break the crayon, I couldn’t imagine.
“But there’s a price,” he added.
I pursed my lips and gestured for him to get to the point.
“You’re going to lose your head.”
“Just tell me, I can handle it.”
“No, I mean that’s what happens. You lose your head. Well, it’s still there, but you can’t see it anymore. Everyone else can, but for you it’s missing from your reflection, your shadow, even in photos. You know that creepy photo in Back to the Future where his siblings lose their body parts? My reflection looks like that for me. My head is gone.”
I recalled the part of the movie he was talking about, and my arm hair stood on end. What he said should’ve sounded made up, but now I had the shiveries for real. I couldn’t stop thinking of frostbite and purple limbs fading into nothingness and icy crystals blurring across a window and the inkling of a malevolence wanting to claim my reflection for itself and cast me out somewhere unknown and unreachable.
This explained Tomas’s recent bizarre behavior.
“Pick a crayon,” he said. “I wish I were brave enough to be with you when you do it, but I’m not.” His voice broke at the end. “Just promise me you’ll go through with it,” he whispered.
“What if someone doesn’t do the ritual? What happens if it gets them?”
He rose from the table and took my face in both his hands, his gentle fingers warming my cheeks. I drank in his caring gaze, as though he’d finally woken from a bad dream and realized I was there in bed beside him. “No one wants to find out.”
I remembered Penelope’s science experiment, the pointing shadow crawling across the carpet, distorted and stretching across the fibers toward me, how I’d squirmed and leaned away from it while trying to hide my discomfort from her. How I wouldn’t have let it touch me even if she did notice. How it’d sought me out with accusatory precision.
To our mammalian brains, wasn’t the unknown always worse than the known? Even if that meant losing one’s head. As strange as Tomas had been acting these past days, I trusted him.
“Less than a week until it has your reflection, Alicia. Do it tonight. And make it fast.”
I picked up my crayon of choice and met his gaze, the same bold, earthy, magnificent, warm brown.
• • • •
Now, I swipe the crayon straight across my mirrored neck, the point blunting into a dark smudge on the glass, like my reflection’s face. The malevolence rushes toward me from somewhere far away—a gust closing in, a burst of biting cold. How close? It must sense my resistance. I press harder. The crayon bows. The evil force charges. A knot tightens my shoulder blades. Goosebumps spring up across my nape and down my arms.
A flash of glacier-blue in the mirror. Segmented limbs or arms or spiny teeth slap at the glass. Grasping. Rushing my reflection.
The crayon crumples into two halves, a wrinkled joint of paper connecting them. That awful presence dissipates. Tomas never warned me I’d see it!
Now a new terror replaces it: my headless visage in the glass. My stomach clenches at the wrongness. The neck doesn’t end in a clean line, but blurs up past the crayon mark into nothing. I tilt forward, staring at the fuzziness where it feels like I should see a cross section of my own throat. My forehead hits cold glass. I turn away and spot my shadow against the bathroom wall, my decapitated silhouette. No escape.
In our world of selfies, video meetings, cameras and screens everywhere—everywhere—I’ll never see my face again. From now on, Tomas will have to tell me if I have food in my teeth. Apply my makeup. Inform me when I’m overdue for a haircut. I’ll help him trim his beard. Maybe someday, I’ll find tenderness in having to rely on another for so much.
Right now, though, hot tears spill down my invisible cheeks, without any of the warmth of his caress. For the first time, I hope Penelope grows to look more like me than Tomas as time goes on. The muscles around my mouth tighten and quiver. At least I’ll never have to see myself cry.