This story first appeared in Albedo One issue 4 and was subsequently published in the chapbook BROKEN HEROES and in the full-length book collection LOST NOTES. An Interzone review described “The Mirror Cracked” as follows: ‘There is a subtle, humane quality … a sense that the author really is using his imagination and going beyond the obvious … a particularly fine performance.’
THE MIRROR CRACKED
There was the moment of flux, the meta-moment. Dorothy closed her eyes not wanting to see the transformation in the mirror. Enough that she could feel it. Often in the past she had stared, but not now. She couldn’t bear to look now.
The molecular shift, subtle at first, crept across her face. Her skin loosened, then filled, as flesh crawled and bone expanded. Her skullcap tingled. Sprouting follicles lengthened her hair, bleaching it the colour of sun-drenched straw.
Dorothy opened her eyes. The result was pleasing, definitely pleasing. She pouted lips that were now full and red, but not red enough. Mentally mouthing the command ‘make-up: typical’, she watched her lips tremble as if hungry ants were crawling all over, kissing them crimson. With the reddening and the tingling they twitched and pouted even more, making her look just like the real Marilyn.
Dorothy slowly shifted her gaze to her babydoll eyes. Flawless, bluebell eyes. Her gaze lingered on them. In their blue pools she saw subtle hints, ripples of hope and expectation. For a moment she thought she saw something else: a sheen of innocence glistened back at her but was gone in the twinkling of a wet eye. It was a cry for love, for contentment. Whether it was her own longing glistening through or some crazy, contradictory innocence exuding from the real Marilyn, she could not tell.
An innocent, emotional Marilyn looked good – guaranteed to appeal to the client’s noble, protective instincts. Dorothy held her breath, hoping, believing her look would trigger the desired response, so that when the light above the mirror turned red she felt ever so deflated. When the sign below the mirror flashed ‘Archetypal Rubenesque’ she was surprised. The twentieth century, with all its garish variety, was Xavier’s favourite. He rarely strayed from his usual patch, almost never going back before Isadora. Dorothy consoled herself that the change to Rubenesque would not be too difficult. Marilyn was chubby enough already. Little alteration was required, just a gentle filling out. She felt her cheeks puff up slightly, though she was aware that most of the filling out was going on down below. A wave of energy brushed her hair, sweeping it back, darkening it. A gentle change, not too much, not too demanding, but unlikely to appeal to Xavier.
The light did not wait long. Dorothy expected it to go red, but when the sign beneath flashed ‘Twiggy’ she cringed. Talk about extremes. She sighed. When a client pays top-dollar, he gets what he pays for.
This time the meta-moment stretched like an hour – an elongated, never-ending, tortuous twist in her mind and body. Her whole being condensed. Bones shrunk and skin shrivelled in a quick slow-death. Diminishing in stature, in dignity – she had long ago learned to live with that – she felt herself creaking, contracting into a matchstick. She could almost feel her inner organs crumble in an anorexic miasma. Like dying of old age in an instant, she thought.
Metamorphosis over, she opened her eyes and looked in the mirror. Her hair was yellow again, yellow as flowers in a Van Gogh painting, and short, very short. But her eyes, Jesus. Big and round and misty again. Dorothy tried not to look coy. Xavier hated the coy look. She knew that and hoped this wasn’t a run through her entire late twentieth century blonde short-hair catalogue, Twiggy to Diana to Madonna to… A lot of clients liked the vampish Madonna look. Dorothy hated it because it made her feel even more like a scrubber. Inevitably with a lot of customers, it led to Archetypal Punk. If there was one thing Dorothy could not stand it was the disgusting sensation of rings or pins bursting from her nose. She much preferred the dark, sultry look. The Magdalene was her favourite.
The flashing sign broke her from her reverie. She looked down and shook her head in disbelief. He couldn’t want that again, not after the last time. Her incredulity gave way to a numbing sense of the inevitable. She heard herself say, “That’s gonna cost you more.”
“How much?” said the voice behind the mirror.
“That’s twice as much as last time.”
“Takes a lot out of a girl. You want it, you pay.”
For a moment nothing happened. Then a thousand credits flashed onscreen, followed by that nauseating instruction. Dorothy looked down at it as if staring might make it disappear but it did not. First she saw the hyphen, then her focus expanded and into her consciousness seeped the word ‘Self-assembly’ with all its implications. There was nothing to do now but stand there and wait for her client to begin.
It was her hair first: lengthening and reddening. Then the cheekbones: higher. Not knowing what to expect next, Dorothy felt her nose expand. She remembered the last time; it was the same: hair, cheekbones, nose and… Lips? Yes, fuller again. Lines of marching ants again, in her eyes this time, turning them… Brown? Yes, brown. She was afraid to open them, to look until the process was over. When she thought it might be over, it started again. Minor adjustments: eyebrows, beauty marks, curls; lips again, eyes again; then the neck – stretching – and the shoulders – squaring out – and the arms – elongating – and the rest… Then back to her face: forehead, chin, nose again. Why spend so long on her nose? Longer than the last time, that’s for sure. No way would she put up with this if he wasn’t such a regular…
The red light changed to green, the mirror slid slowly into its slot in the ceiling and Dorothy stood before her client.
“I’d prefer if you’d get dressed,” he said.
Xavier was rare: a client who didn’t care for sex. Rarer still, he was a client who preferred her with her clothes on. Dorothy valued him for that and valued him also because he made her feel useful and wanted in ways other than the obvious.
She dressed languidly, wondering who she now was. Xavier, still on the other side of where the mirror had been, stared at her with eyes wide and wistful. When she asked, “How do you want me to speak?” he said, “Don’t say anything. Don’t say anything at all.”
“Okay. Just tell me what you want me to do.”
Her voice made Xavier wince but he recovered quickly. “Would you like to go for a walk – for an hour? Is a thousand enough for an hour?”
The last time he hadn’t spoken at all, hadn’t even raised the mirror. Just sat there staring, silent and transfixed, until his time was up. Now a plaintive quality in his voice touched her. It was a plea that despite its unusual nature she could not refuse. She nodded, put on her coat and together they left the booth.
Out on the street Xavier said, “Toss back your hair, please.”
She did, and smiled, and in that moment saw in his eyes that she was no longer Dorothy but a long lost love that reached down at Xavier’s heartstrings and pulled them so hard she could see he was hurt.
“Let’s go out along the bridge,” he said.
Avoiding teeming streets they took the short route down by the Port Authority, along the river. Occasionally, he asked her to toss her hair again. Sometimes she did it of her own accord, which made him happy and made her think how easy, how inviting, it would be to slip into another personality, another life. She wanted to ask him who, and why and when and where, but she did not want to spoil it by speaking. At the bridge he said they should walk out to the middle before looking back. That way the sunset would be more… magical, he said.
He was right. The effect was startling. A blood-red sky interfaced with the rising silhouettes of skyscrapers; the skeletal bridge caught in a golden sunburst that lit up its latticework like a bridge in wonderland. Dorothy tossed her mane again, not consciously this time, and looked at Xavier.
He was staring down over the parapet. A globe of a tear, golden in the sun, rolled down his cheek and fell into the greater mass of water below. Dorothy’s gaze followed his tear for a hundred metres until it met the great river. When she saw the cold, relentless tide she felt dizzy. When she glanced at Xavier and saw the look on his face, and looked down at the water again, she felt scared.
“Let’s go,” she mumbled, half-expecting him to protest, to reach out. He merely glanced at her and quickly turned away but she had seen the wet rims of his eyes. Between her thinking how relieved she was that he hadn’t lunged and thrown her off the bridge, and how sorry she felt for him, he said, “Yes, the hour will be up by the time we return.”
Down by the bridge they walked, past the Port Authority, along the river. She did not toss her hair again. Xavier would not have noticed anyway. His head was bowed, too wrapped up in his personal cloud of melancholy. He had come to her so often, never for anything other than to look, to talk, to work through her catalogue. He had always exuded an air of sadness, of love unrequited, yet not once had he hinted of anything in his past, except for the last time when he asked for the ‘Self-assembly’ option. That was when she had first realised the depth of his loss. She looked at him now. He was bent forward as if a riding crop was forcing him to keep in front of her. His centre of gravity was all wrong, as if he was leading into some mysterious headwind that kept her from seeing his face even in profile. Yet he did not abandon her. He stayed by her side all the way back to the seedier part of town.
Past the ghetto they walked, past childhood’s doors, past streets of shame, past gutters and kerbs that had blown away her hopes and broken all her dreams. She remembered it all now. How it began, how it never stopped. It surrounded her like a lead weight crawling around her heart.
By the time they stood on the sidewalk outside the brothel Dorothy could contain herself no longer. “What’s wrong?” she asked in a voice she knew would now be even more painful for him. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“It’s your face.” He glanced up the street, down the street, anywhere but at her. “I can’t get the face right. There’s something… It’s the nose…” He shrugged. “…My memory, I guess. After all these years…”
“I understand.” She wanted to reach out, to hold him, but all she could say was, “Next time you’ll get it right.”
“Yeah, sure. Thanks anyway.” He turned and walked away. In the turning and the walking she knew she would never see him again.
The mirror slid slowly down on a woman once loved, always loved. Dorothy wondered how long ago it had been, and if she had loved him, too. It would not have been difficult to love a man like Xavier, but she didn’t even know the woman’s name or if she was still alive. If only Xavier had a holograph he could get her face right. Then…
Dorothy could not keep them down, these hollow promises from a past unfulfilled: chances not taken, gambles unwon, mistakes best forgotten yet unforgettable. Life’s lost opportunities rampaged like furies through her heart. She wanted to scream until the mirror cracked but all she could manage was a sigh – and that rumbling tremor came from somewhere so fundamental it barely registered by the time it escaped her mouth. He didn’t even have a photograph, not even a faded, dog-eared, old-fashioned picture. She looked in the mirror at that lost face and thought it cruel that it should come to this for Xavier, for her, for whoever owned that face. Her eyes grew misty once more, and as the tears welled up the light turned red. Another client stood behind the two-way glass. The sign flashed and Dorothy began to change again.