The hall mirror crashes against the cold grey tiles, sending fragments of silvered glass skittering across the floor to where Clarice stands, her back hard against the wall.
“That’s seven years bad luck!” she screeches, her face contorted into an ugly red mask.
I pick up a thin wooden frame that used to hang on the bathroom wall and hold it high above my head. “And this one? Will this make it fourteen years?”
The colour drains from her face. “It’s still seven,” she replies evenly, her voice desperately controlled, “But it’s seven years of even worse luck. Please, you don’t have to–”
I hold her gaze and let the mirror fall. Her quiet plea turns back into a banshee wail: “Fucker!” she screams, “Stupid fucking fucker!”
I ignore her superstitious nonsense and pick up the next mirror from the pile. What’s a mere seven years bad luck, when I already know the rest of my life will be misery? I bend to my task, a dozen mirrors from handheld to full-length to smash and then smash again and again, until there is nothing bigger than a thumbnail left, nothing that might accidentally reveal my scarred and tortured face.
I’d never realised before how many mirrors Clarice had filled the house with; some Chinese-inspired craziness, supposedly to guard against evil spirits. A fat lot of good that did either of us. By the time I let the warm hammer drop from my numbed and bleeding fingers she and her big red suitcase are long gone.
I sweep the pieces into a black bin bag and carry them through the early morning light to the wheelie bin, stopping only long enough to give the finger to Mrs Johnston who’s stood in her dressing gown looking like death warmed up, eagerly waiting an opportunity to complain about the noise. Screw her and all the other curtain-twitching busybodies.
I slam the door and wearily climb the stairs, past the pitiful half-painted nursery, to the bedroom that still smells so strongly of Clarice I have to check she isn’t curled up under the duvet. But the bed is cold and feels damp as I climb in, falling gradually asleep to the sound of the suburbs waking up.
When I come to, sometime in the late afternoon, the message light is blinking. I select “erase all”. If she wants to come back, she can, but I’m not going to discuss it over the phone. I don’t think she will though; why should she? We’ve been at each other’s throats ever since I was discharged. We can’t help but painfully remind each other of better times, when we had so much to look forward to together. She’d caught just before my posting to Iraq, long enough to start work on the nursery, not long enough to finish.
I got the news of her miscarriage from my hospital bed in Basra. I wasn’t sure what to say, what to think. Finally, to the consternation of the staff nurse who had tried to gently break the awful news, I simply said: “Good” and closed my eyes to try and sleep. But I couldn’t shake the image of Clarice lying on her own hospital bed finding out what had happened to me from an equally sympathetic nurse, a perfect symmetry of misery and woe.
That was when I thought I’d never walk again. Or hoped I never would. The Army doctors had other ideas; they weren’t keen on giving me a medical discharge and even wanted me to go back and finish my tour. I think those in the know were half-hoping for an honourable death, but I managed to convince them that I was suffering from PTSD and finally they relented.
I walk through the little terraced house, once our pride and joy. To finally put down roots, to have a home that didn’t change with every posting, even if that meant being away from her more often than I would have liked. Now it’s empty, silently mocking me.
I do a final sweep for any lurking mirrors, not wanting to be ambushed unexpectedly, and then I sit and think.
Without a proper disability pension I can’t really afford not to work. And with Clarice and her shop-assistant wages gone, the fridge and cupboards will empty quickly. Worse, the black paint I sprayed to cover the kettle’s shiny chrome surface has bubbled and split and stinks to high-heaven whenever it is switched on. I’m reduced to boiling water in a saucepan on the stove.
I pull out the laptop, the last of our big purchases, and go online. After signing up for the least offensive of the “work from home” schemes I max out the joint credit card on groceries and a new, soulless, white plastic kettle. The next available delivery slot is two days away, so to distract myself from my gnawing hunger I start making my first sales calls.
I quickly work out it’s a numbers game. You can’t sell to someone who isn’t interested, no matter how silver tongued you are, so the trick is to call as many people as you can and to spend as little time as possible working out if they are in the market for your product or not. You have to cut through the pleasantries, the chit-chat, the attempts to tell you their life history. You’re not their friend, not until they begin to waver and you can hit them with a: “I really shouldn’t be doing this, but…” deal-clinching discount.
Within a month, I’m top in both calls made and sales won, which shows you just how good the other Tele-Workers aren’t. I stay top for the next four months and they keep trying to offer me an office based job, or at least to come in for my award. I keep turning them down.
Just like I keep turning down offers of Christmas with my Sister’s family. Just as I turn down friend requests from people I once served with. After a while the offers stop coming.
Time passes; slowly and painfully. The house crumbles around me. Even the television stops working, but I don’t miss it. I live on the internet, work there, shop there, manage my bills there. Anything that arrives by post I ignore and leave unopened, a pile that thickens over time, swells, splits in two like some monstrous organism and which, when I finally get round to junking, completely fills three garbage bags.
I change sales jobs when the one I was working for insists on weekly Skype sessions. It doesn’t matter. The same rules apply, whatever crap I’m trying to sell.
When I’m not cold-calling I sleep, or read and re-read the trashy romance novels Clarice left behind. They don’t last though; my manhandling breaks their spines, crumples their pages, tears them in two. So much frustrated rage, set loose by the merest hint of a happy ending. I collect their shed pages, try using them to make cigarettes, but they burn all wrong. In the end I paper the windows with them, a mosaic of unlikely love affairs. They let in just enough light, but keep the outside, outside.
The days pass. The seasons pass. The years pass. My rage fades, having nothing left for it to destroy. Once a week–unless I’m having a particularly bad week, which happens less and less–I run an electric razor over my stubble, feeling by touch whether I’ve made a decent enough job of it, my fingers lingering over the old scars. And then I drive the battered Volvo with its taped-over rear-view mirror to a pub. It is my one vice, my one indulgence, and a safeguard against what would happen if I started getting my alcohol delivered at home.
Smithy’s is closest, but Smithy’s has a mirror that runs the full length of the brightly lit bar, so I drive the extra distance to The Wheelhouse, risk the longer, drunken, return journey. I always sit at the same table, tucked towards the back, away from the lights, away from the CD jukebox, away from the staring people.
The bar-staff know what I drink and they know to leave me alone, though they are no more fixed than the seasons. The bar’s popularity fluctuates, the number of drinkers ebbs and flows as other pubs in the area become more or less frequented. The Wheelhouse even turns up on the occasional pub crawl: a midway stop between more salubrious destinations, the small space suddenly full of raucous kids drinking halves or shots, before just as swiftly emptying out again.
But tonight, one of them has stayed behind. A tall brassy blonde in a dress that looks at least one size too small for her, who waves her friends goodbye and then sits at the bar sipping from a lurid coloured bottle, giving me sideways glances as if she’s waiting for me to come and introduce myself.
She finishes her drink and I think she’s getting up to leave, but instead she about-turns and I feel the prickle of cold sweat under my faded and un-ironed shirt as she comes over to where I’m nursing my pint. She smiles and puts her hands on her hips and asks: “Do you mind if I join you?”
“I’m not very good company,” I gruffly reply, too stunned to be more blunt.
“I’m not looking for companionship,” she says as she slides into the booth, her hand resting for a moment on my upper thigh. “So I guess you’re in luck.”
There are many things that might be considered bad luck, and I seem to get all of them. Like, hooking up with probably the only girl in this shitty town who has mirrors on her ceiling. I didn’t notice at first, not until we rolled over, and then as she climbed on top I looked past her bobbing head at the writhing couple above me, momentarily excited, until I realise it is us.
I must have stopped whatever I’d been doing, because, after a moment’s frenetic movement in expectation of a climax, she draws slowly to a halt, a confused look on her face. “Honey, what’s wrong? Do you want to go back on top?” But I don’t respond, I just kept staring at our upside-down doubles. Strangers, both. She gets off abruptly and, snatching up a peach coloured silk gown, she stomps off to the bathroom. Midway though, she stops, and picking up my threadbare trousers she turns and throws them onto the bed. “Get out! Crazy bastard! Don’t you dare be here when I come back!”
But I don’t–can’t–move. I’m looking up and remembering the last time I’d seen my reflection, the last time I’d been whole.
We were clearing a compound a few miles out of the dusty city. I’d been assigned to some dodgy looking outbuildings, along with Richie, except he’d gone off in search of somewhere to take a piss. I should have waited, but two-thirds through a tour you get complacent. Lazy. Sloppy.
I didn’t like the look of the darkened doorway I was approaching, so I called out for anyone inside to come out with their hands up and, not reassured by the lack of reply, I step up ready to toss in a canister of tear gas. But my groping hand reaches further along my belt because there–silhouetted against an unexpected door at the far end of the room–is a mean looking son-of-a-bitch, rifle at the ready.
It was me. Reflected in a full length mirror: the salvaged door of a wardrobe propped up against the back wall. It took me a long moment to realise that. And, in that same moment, I also realised that I was not alone: the room was full of small dark shapes, cowering under or behind pint-sized desks.
But by then the metal sphere I’d thrown had rattled off the woodwork and spun into the dark recesses accompanied by a collective sharp intake of breath.
There isn’t much you can do when you’ve just tossed a grenade into a crowded schoolroom, except watch it explode.
When I came to I was lying on the ground a good ten feet from the doorway, my ears ringing and blood pouring from my legs and arms and face. In the confined space, the explosion had torn apart the wooden desks and sent the pieces flying in my direction. One look had the medics calling for an emergency evac and me fearing for my life.
But the fragments of wood hadn’t penetrated far, they’d just peppered what wasn’t covered by my body armour–my legs, my arms, my face–causing a lot of scary superficial bleeding. It had pretty much stopped before the ‘copter landed. A unit of O-neg blood and an excruciated hour with a doctor armed with a scalpel and a large pair of tweezers was all the medical treatment I needed.
I can see the little white scars now, as I slowly turn my arms, watching my twin floating above me do the same.
It would have been better if I had been as badly injured as they–as I–had at first thought. I might not have made it, or if I had, I would have been unlikely to make a full recovery. Severely injured, I would have carried those injuries with stoicism, accepting my disfigurement with good grace, knowing that I had in some small way paid for my mistake. If I occasionally broke down and sobbed, or become morose and withdrawn, people would have been sympathetic; they would have understood.
But that’s not the way my luck plays out. And if the loss of my unborn child, the end of my marriage, and my pointless existence are to be my punishment, they are not punishment enough. They do not allow me to accept the consequences of my actions.
They do not change what I see when I stare transfixed at my reflection. Even after seven years of bad luck, I can hardly bear to look myself in the mirror.
They say the eyes are the windows of the soul and my eyes… my eyes are empty.
Liam Hogan is a London based writer. Winner of Quantum Shorts 2015 and Sci-Fest LA’s Roswell Award 2016, his dark fantasy collection, “Happy Ending Not Guaranteed”, is out now from Arachne Press. Find more about Liam on his website here or tweet at @LiamJHogan)