Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Mirror of Youth by Rachel Smith

 Their sumptuous lounge overflowed with gifts, nestled beneath the sleek art-deco pictures and richly coloured tapestries which adorned the walls.

Julia sipped a chilled glass of Napa Valley chardonnay and opened another present. His and her embroidered towels and bathrobes. She sighed. How offensively mundane

Mike, to her eternal annoyance, expressed genuine delight at everything he opened regardless of whether they were crystal champagne flutes or a novelty corkscrew.

Forcing her expectations lower, Julia picked at the edge of another glittered box and gently pried it open. Layer upon layer of brown paper, bubble wrap and finally, shimmering crimson silk were peeled back to reveal a flawless oval vanity mirror. Julia nodded approval at the ornate frame, a golden weave pattern inlaid with twinkling jewels and strands of silver.

“That one’s for you,” Mike said.

He ripped apart his own anniversary gift with unreserved enthusiasm.

“Ah!”

He brandished a cookery book entitled “Everyone Loves Cake!” and started thumbing through the bright pages, ignoring the other presents scattered around him.

Julia pursed her lips. As far as she was concerned, the last thing he needed was encouragement to eat more cake. That paunch hadn’t been there a year ago and she’d be damned if she was going to become that gorgeous woman on the arm of some gelatinous man who used to be handsome.

“I’m going to put this in the bedroom,” she said, smoothing her skirt over her still slender hips. Mike didn’t look up.

“OK,” he said, absorbed in the description of chocolate orange cake by the looks of the glossy picture. A book? Someone from his side of the family, of course, but who? She made a mental note to find out and ensure that person’s next birthday or Christmas gift was equally cheap.

 

Perched on the cushioned stool at her dressing table, Julia pushed the old mirror aside. She carefully placed the splendid new mirror in its place and sighed deeply. It was pure perfection.

The mirrored glass must have been of a uniquely superior quality, for it highlighted her smooth features and delicate cheekbones with wondrous precision. The cruel hints of the aging process which she had noticed in recent years were suddenly invisible. The furrowed lines around her eyes and mouth were gone, her thinning lips plump once more and her creamy skin was as flawless as the mirror itself.

Sunlight shifted across her features as the hours ticked by but Julia didn’t notice.

She shone with a radiance she hadn’t felt since her teenage years when she had first nabbed Mike Wellington from the clutches of his then-girlfriend, Clare. Julia had expected the little freak to exact revenge in some way, being the type to brew a love potion or nail your cat to the doorframe, but no such deed had transpired. Not in twenty-years. The woman had known when to accept defeat. And honestly, when faced with Julia Evergreen as a love rival, who wouldn’t?

“Are you coming back?” Mike’s voice seemed far away, nestled amongst the rustlings of crepe paper.

“Just a minute,” she called, tilting her chin to admire the swanlike grace of her unblemished neck. Her eyes looked brighter too, she thought, leaning forwards. Her green eyes – which had taken on a dull hue these days - sparkled like emeralds framed with long, voluptuous lashes.

Irritated by the abrupt dimness of the room, Julia flicked on the lampshade.

She brought her hand up to touch her cheek and froze. The hands that she loathed for betraying her years were those of a twenty-year old model. A singular, crystal tear shimmered and dropped onto her cheek.

“Julia?” Mike’s voice was closer, perhaps in the doorway and edged with concern.

“Yes?” she managed to say, though it was but a whisper.

“Have you been here the whole time? It’s been so long I thought you might have gone out.”

Puzzled, Julia turned to face Mark. His expression flickered from concern to shock and then horror.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Uh, are you feeling alright?” he said, staring at a point just behind her. He’s avoiding looking at me… but, why?

“Mike,” she said, reaching out to him. He took a step backwards. She gasped at the wrinkled, elderly hand in front of her, painfully fragile in the waning daylight.

“Wha-,” Julia stared at the hand, horrified as the fingers moved to her will.

She stood up, wincing at the shooting pain in her bones, down her arms, up her legs. Her head throbbed. Mike stepped backwards until his back met the wall, giving way as Julia hobbled past. The walls swam as she struggled downstairs. It was as if she waded through tar. She felt so weak! 

With her heart pounding painfully in her chest, Julia picked up the stack of notecards which had accompanied the gifts and turned them over one by one. Mike followed her downstairs in a daze and hid in the corner of the room, wide-eyed and drained of colour. She quickly found the card she sought, spat out a curse and shambled upstairs as fast as her treacherous body would allow.

The beautiful mirror was still there, gleaming invitingly. She grabbed it with both hands and flung it on the bed. Bending down, she returned her old mirror to its place and closed her eyes.

She didn’t want to look. If her withered hands and creaking body were anything to go by… she steeled herself, took a deep breath and opened her eyes.

 

***

 

Mike stiffened at the sudden, blood-curdling howl that echoed through the lounge. Confused and numb, he bent to pick up the notecard which had fallen from Julia’s fingers.

“Happy Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Wellington. I hope you grow old together, Love Clarity.”

“Clarity…” the name tugged at something in his memory. An old memory tucked away in the shadowed depths of his mind.

A memory of a girl named Clare surfaced, whom he’d dated until Julia swanned into view. He remembered Clare talking about baby names a few weeks before he’d dumped her. If she ever had a girl, she wanted to call her Clarity.

Fear slithered over him as he remounted the stairs. A young woman from the party last night flickered in his mind. She had looked like Clare. Same watery-blue eyes, same pixie nose… and his red hair. No, he told himself. She would have told me if she had been pregnant. Wouldn’t she?

He halted in the bedroom doorway. The black satin dress was the only recognisable thing about Julia. In her place was the corpse of a truly ancient-looking woman collapsed backwards – knees hunkered up in a sitting position - on their plush cream carpet. Skull covered with a wafer-thin layer of cracked skin and the jaw strained open in perpetual terror.

Mike glanced sidelong at the mirror and shuddered. “I hope you grow old together,” he said, his voice hoarse as he took another look at his wife’s decomposed body, “Jesus Christ, she didn’t deserve that.”

He edged towards the mirror as if approaching a sleeping tiger. I’ll smash it. Maybe that will reverse things? He doubted it but it was worth a try.

Mike launched himself forwards, gripping the mirror with both hands and lifted it up. Seconds before he brought it crashing down, his own reflection caught his eye and he hesitated.

Such strong features, the shock of red hair adding an unusual, almost exotic thrill. Oh, how he had made the girls swoon… he remembered well. He shifted his weight, bringing the mirror down to get a better look. He was thinner, the slight chubbiness he attributed to middle-age was gone and the chiselled panes of his youth were back. He grinned. What a dazzling smile he had without the eye crinkles or the tufts of grey hair. People said he was distinguished but he knew what that really meant. Old.

I must destroy it.

His fingers flexed around the glittering frame. His dashing youthfulness gazing back at him.

Maybe just a little longer.

© Rachel Smith

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