Better Halves, by KC Grifant

Better Halves - Heather Landry

Art by Heather Landry – http://sandpaperdaisy.com/ – click to enlarge

Something wasn’t quite right, but Anne couldn’t place it. At first she thought it was the weather, casting a gloomy sheen over their summer beach trip.

“Stupid New England,” she said. An apt belated birthday present, she thought sourly. A face peered at her through the passenger window reflection: her own, frowning and fragmented against the rain flecks.

“It’s a week out of the city,” said Derick, ever the optimist. “We can get lobster.”

The GPS spoke up and her husband yanked the wheel. A small wooden sign with the inn’s name in white script, clattering against a post barely lit by the headlights, was the first sign of a town since passing the IHOP half an hour back.

“But I wanted to take photos,” she said, her heart sinking as the house came into view through the mist. It was — well — older than she had expected, with peeling paint and raindrops caught trembling in spider webs along the top of the front door. Flowers on the nearby trellis sagged as if their dark colors were about to stream off like paint.

Inside, a carpet studded with dark roses bloomed at their feet before running up a narrow stairwell. “Welcome! Honeymoon suite top floor in back. Breakfast at 8,” read a note on the counter, pinned down by a key on a wooden keychain.

Upstairs, Derick bumped into Anne as she stopped at the room’s entrance. “What’s wrong?”

This is the honeymoon suite?” she said. The room was dark, the bed high with overstuffed lace pillows that her grandmother would’ve liked. Small watercolors of boats and colonial houses peppered the floral wallpaper.

“It’s not so bad.”

“It’s not great,” Anne said, dropping her bag and stepping over to a vanity desk below an enormous, ornate mirror. “Maybe it’s the feng shui.”

She leaned down to check her hair and stopped, entirely caught off guard by what she saw. It wasn’t the unpleasant but familiar sensation of seeing time tug at skin and flesh that felt immortal. No, something else was off — something in the way the light peeled away at the edges of the mirror, like several of her reflections lay directly behind the first. The boundaries of her edge begin to blur when—

“Look what they left for us.”

Anne’s eyes slid toward her husband, who raised a wooden board with crackers and cubes of cheddar.

“Nice,” she said, but her voice sounded hollow. “Let’s go to bed.”

The bed was soft and warm despite its old-fashioned look, and she started to feel relaxed for the first time all day until Derick nuzzled her. She turned onto her back. “Stomachache,” she breathed and waited until she heard his breath grow slow and long, asleep.

Like clockwork, Anne’s surge of resentment faded to a familiar, throbbing guilt. She knew he wanted a family. She did, too, in theory. They had agreed to wait until her 34th birthday, enough time for her to start up an online photography shop and market herself to galleries. But of course things had gotten in the way and now her time was up.

Maybe during maternity leave she’d have time to pursue projects that always seemed to be on hold. Her mother’s voice floated to her, sentences Anne had heard too many times.

You’ll feel different when you have a baby.

Art school isn’t a career.

You are so lucky to have Derick.

It had all worked out well enough so far. Derick was sweet and she had a decent career in banking on a fast track for a promotion. Having a kid would probably be fine, too. So why was she on the brink of hyperventilating?

Anne squashed down the stew of panic into a more manageable ball of unease as she sat up, reaching for her water bottle. From the bed, she could make out her silhouette in the mirror to her left, coarsely granular as the curtains sighed, scattering moonlight around the room.

From here, she looked like a nymph who had climbed up the trellis and crept into their room, feral and damp from the outdoors. Or like a mermaid who had just gained legs for the night and ran across the sand and grass, drawn to the glint of the mirror.

I’m tired, Anne thought and laid herself down next to her husband.

The inn manager, Betty, served them breakfast, plopping down plates with scrambled eggs and slightly crooked corn muffins.

“Do you like the room?” Betty murmured. She didn’t look much older than Anne, but wore an old-fashioned long green skirt and brown apron and too-thick glasses.

Derick nodded. “Not bad. How old is this place?”

“1750. It used to be a mansion. Survived two fires.” Betty gave a pale grin as she refreshed their juice cups from a glass carafe.

“Any ghost stories?” Anne piped, stuffing a bite of egg into her mouth. She still had an uneasy feeling she couldn’t shake. She didn’t believe in ghosts per se, but it always seemed like the local hotels and inns had a tale of a haunting or two they were eager to share. Part of the New England charm.

An awkward tinkle of a laugh erupted from Betty. “People believe all sorts of things, especially up around here,” she said. “Sometimes, we are too easily influenced by others, don’t you think?” She shot Anne a stern look that reminded Anne all too much of her mother.

Anne nodded, sheepish as she chewed. The dark shadows along the bottom of Betty’s irises seemed to give a jump and the faint morning light nearly — but didn’t fully — cooperate in reflecting against the hard curve of her glasses as Betty topped off their coffees as well. “Everyone just loves that room. We’ve had people who’ve been coming back for years. Something about this place.”

As they walked along the harbor to the downtown street with shops and a little boardwalk, Anne’s phone buzzed. She ignored it, raising her Canonet Rangefinder instead to take a shot of the bobbing sailboats, their clones resting on a muted, equally cloudy sky in the glassy water. The sky was thick and bloated, threatening to rain at any moment.

“I’m gonna take some photos, hon, catch up for lunch at the tavern in a bit?” Anne said as they reached the small epicenter of gift stores and candy shops atop a hill over the boardwalk. Sometimes, if she looked at him from a certain angle, he looked like a stranger, even as he smiled at her before taking off toward the bookstore.

The clouds and shadows actually worked well for her black-and-white shots. Anne framed a shot of an arguing couple with a stroller between two old brick buildings, one of which had a strutting overhead that cast hard bars of light and shadow. Another of a young woman frowning into a phone in front of an antique store, a beam of light breaking through the clouds just behind her.

Anne was about to snap a shot of an elderly couple on a bench, a small panting dog trapped between them, when something by her ear made her jump.

“Burn.”

Anne whirled to see a dazed-eyed older man with a buzz cut and layers of old clothes wavering on his feet.

Burned it,” he hissed again. His smell made her nose prickle and she lowered her camera so he wouldn’t grab it as she stepped away.

“I tried!” The man screeched suddenly. A few people’s heads turned even as the stream of tourists made a wide circle around them. “But they don’t let me. Near. It.”

Anne took a step back and then another as the man jabbed his finger toward an ice cream sign on the sidewalk. She quickly turned and ducked into a café, relieved to see the man take off in another direction.

The young barista’s eyes followed her up to the counter. “Old Iggy,” the girl at the counter said sympathetically. “Ignore him. Sometimes he’s nice enough.”

An older man swiping through an iPad snorted in disapproval. “His father was a vandal and so was he. Nearly set the damn town on fire.”

“I can’t wait to get out of here,” the girl’s smile turned longing as she plopped down the coffee. “You from Boston?”

Anne nodded politely and glanced down at her phone, which vibrated insistently. A message from her mother, even though they had just talked yesterday. “You really can’t wait any longer,” her mother had said then, like she always did, in the same tone she used when she dissuaded Anne from majoring in photography, from moving to New York, from doing anything, really.

Anne had protested feebly. “Massachusetts has the—”

“I know, the highest percentage of old moms.” A pause. “You want to be an old mom?”

Now, Anne deleted the message without listening to it and stood at the counter facing the street. Across the way, the toy store’s perfectly reflecting window showed a figure with splashes of lighter color marking her face and neck and arms.

The reflection was staring. But of course it was staring at her, if she was staring at it.

She refocused her eyes to see a faint face on the inside of the café window, barely visible. It took her a moment to realize it was herself. It looked like her, but didn’t. It was like a clone, staring at her.

Get it together, Anne, she scolded herself and sipped her coffee, trying to appreciate the caffeine buzz. She’d have to give it up, wine, sushi, all of it, as she let something else take over her body.

You’ve wasted your life, haven’t you?

Anne stood, tossing away the drink. When she stepped outside, she felt something flutter at her shoulder and whirled around, a yelp stifling in her throat as she saw Derick beaming at her, holding something in his hand. A flyer for a jazz festival tomorrow. “Rain or shine,” he said gleefully.

In the bathroom at the tavern, Anne washed her hands in the faux marble sink and glanced at the mirror for a second, herself looking uncertain before she smoothed down her hair and hurried out.

Anne had never experienced insomnia before except the night of her wedding. Now, she closed her eyes and waited, but the heavy, dreamy feeling preceding sleep eluded her as she listened to Derick’s gentle snores. When finally she did start to drift off, she jerked awake a second later.

She heard a noise.

She laid perfectly still, her heart pounding, waiting to hear it again. The ghost, she thought wildly, even though she technically did not believe in such a thing.

There it was. A little click. From the foot of the bed.

She sat up, trying to whisper to Derick to wake up, but her throat was parched and a small squeak came out instead. Then she saw what it was: the minute hand of a wooden clock on the vanity was stuck.

Anne slid into the vanity chair, pushing the clock hand so that it worked again. Her reflection was barely a silhouette in the darkness with no distinction, no features, a brushstroke of calligraphy ink, nothing really at all.

Anne’s fingers ran over the polished wood of the desk, where tiny pockmarks and dents felt like gritty sand. On the desk’s single drawer curled etchings centered on a keyhole.

She tugged the drawer, expecting it to be locked, but found a small, red book inside, too thin to be a Bible. The Science of Dreaming ran across the binding in faded, thin gold script. She opened it to a well-worn crease and could just make out the words from the moonlight streaming in.

your shadow, or dream, self — the part of you that
sails on during sleep. Reports of “out-of-body”
experiences, doorways to heaven, alien abductions,
and angel encounters have all been traced
to separations gone awry between the dream self and
conscious self. A schism can cause unimaginable

She flipped again and the pages settled easily, as if they already knew what they wanted to show her:

Spellcasters used enchanted reflections to communicate
with their dream selves. Properly positioned along
magnetic fields and treated in an ionic formula,
the mirrors let the beholder ask the dream selves
anything they wished.

What a strange book, Anne thought and turned the pages again, to the back of the very last one—

saw too much. The visions drove them to hysterics or
to act on the evil upon evil they believed grew in them.
Some wrote that those not strong enough had been lost,
drawn too far from their bodies into the shadow
realm. One wrote of a dream ‘parasite’ escaping—

The book ended there. Anne turned it back and forth, trying to see the stitching. She wasn’t sure if pages had been ripped out or if there was another volume.

In the mirror, the seams that traced her outline seemed strained, as if her reflection was a one-dimensional dam, holding back a rush of something desperate to seep out. Her eyes blinked, flat like the gaze of a cardboard cutout.

It was the Face again, watching her.

“Are you a ghost?” Anne whispered, even though it was silly. Nevertheless, she still felt clammy, her body tense, ready to run. She whispered even quieter: “A ‘dream self’?”

Shadows moved in synch with the fluttering curtains, where something screeched, distant but high-pitched. A blur moved quickly across the mirror, like wings flapping. She looked closer into the mirror’s shadows and could see a world unto a world, a two-storied building with small figures running around it.

“What on earth,” Anne whispered and tried to see closer, but the vision faded.

She put the book back in the drawer and stepped back, her heart rocketing like it would shoot her into space. She shook Derick’s shoulder, but he just grunted. She took a long, shaky breath.

Nerves. Hormones. She had just gone off her birth control last month and it was messing with her head, obviously. She climbed back into the too-high bed and waited for sunlight.

In the morning, Anne squinted at the mirror. She saw herself looking groggy and perplexed. It was time to test things out in the clarity of the gray morning.

“Hey, babe,” Anne said casually. “You have a little something on your chin.” She motioned to the mirror but he merely glanced at it, scratched the corner of his beard, and adjusted his baseball cap before stepping away.

“It’s weird right?” Anne persisted. She hadn’t remembered any of her dreams but slept uneasily. “This place feels a little off.”

“Getting more into the ghost stories this trip, aren’t you?” He gave her a look as they left the room.

At breakfast, Anne dug into the banana pancakes as Betty set down a ceramic miniature pitcher with maple syrup. “I found a strange book in our room,” Anne said. “Is it from a local library?”

Betty smiled blandly. “I’m not sure; we have many books here. The housekeeper cycles them through.” She shuffled over to a bookshelf and retrieved a thickly bound book, placing it carefully between them. “That reminds me. If you enjoy your stay do consider us for events.”

The book was full of groups posing in the sprawling back yard of the inn, mostly wedding parties. A few portraits caught her eye — Anne leaned closer to see one bride during preparations and in her wedding gown. Anne recognized the same lost look in the stranger’s eyes that she felt. On the opposite page was a magnificent full portrait of the couple with “1 Year Anniversary!!!!!!” scrawled beneath it. Anne leaned closer. The bride’s eyes looked completely different — self-assured, calm as a cat, with something…sinister about them.

“We’ve had weddings here, reunions, all kinds of things,” Betty grinned. “Think about it.”

Outside in the drizzling day, Anne roamed the sprawling hill of the inn’s yard with her camera while she waited for Derick to grab an umbrella. At the base of the hill, a lofty white trellis framed a pond. Around that, small fountains and streams fed into each other, surrounded by statues of chipped alabaster deer and frogs.

Half a dozen mirrors, some dirty, were propped up along the fountain streams and behind a birdbath and against trees. Tiny seashells studded along the border of one mirror with globs of glue in spots. Another was encircled by tiny, rusted figures of monkeys holding coconuts. The rest were unadorned, blank slabs of smudged reflections.

More feng shui, Anne thought. Mirrors were supposed to deflect bad energy, after all.

“Babe!” Derick waved to her from the sidewalk, and they headed downtown.

After lunch, Anne continued on to the many stores while Derick headed back for a nap before the evening’s festival. She felt stranger each time she glimpsed her face in store display reflections. It looked more and more like the Face, or like she was forgetting her own features.

A weird mental illness, she thought. Early Alzheimer’s.

Finally she found what she had been looking for. Iggy dozed next to the door of a gas station a block from the main street in the same clothes she had seen him in yesterday. A smattering of rain came down as she approached him. Faces inside the gas station turned and moved.

“Burn what,” Anne said, and then louder, “What? You’re talking about the inn, aren’t you?”

His eyes glazed, he looked at her for a long moment. When he slowly nodded, an unexpected relief shot through her. It wasn’t just her. There was something wrong.

Anne, you are agreeing with a crazy person.

“Is it,” she swallowed her pinprick of embarrassment at the word, “haunted?”

Iggy gave a half laugh-half cough and closed his eyes.

“I read — or dreamt — something about shadow selves,” she whispered. “I think I’m seeing mine. What do I ask it? A wish?” She laughed, it was all so absurd, and yet she knew she was seeing something strange, something had been opened to her and she had to see it through.

Iggy didn’t open his eyes or speak, but his head fell forward and his hand opened. In it were five books of matches from the local fusion restaurant with a bright yellow illustration of a parrot. One fell to the ground. She took another from his hand and walked rapidly away.

“Ready for some jazzin’?” Derick asked that evening as he came out of the bathroom.

Anne cleared her throat, and shuffled to the vanity. “Check out this book I came across, isn’t it—” she opened the drawer, to see The Science of Dreaming was gone.

Don’t look don’t look don’t look

Anne glanced at the mirror. Her reflection, the Face, nodded. Her shadow self, she thought. It was right there, waiting for her to ask whatever she wished. Now, its eyes seemed to say.

“I’ll stay here,” she heard herself say, tearing away her gaze to look at him. “I didn’t sleep a wink. You go.”

After a few minutes of back and forth, Derick agreed. She waited until the door clicked shut and his footsteps disappeared down the hallway before standing at the window and watching him recede. One of the angled mirrors in the yard glinted even in the dimming sunlight.

The mirrors weren’t deflecting negative energy away, she thought and felt dread creep over her. They were channeling it in.

Burn it, Iggy’s urgency came back to her and she glanced at the lace curtain. She pulled the bright yellow matchbook from her pocket, the logoed parrot staring up open-mouthed at her.

It would be so easy. But, she stopped herself, her pit of unease swelling and a sharp thought piercing her. What? Burn a place down because she felt a little off? That was absurd.

She struck the candle next to the clock instead. Smoke poured from the wick and her nose prickled at the unusual, saltwater smell.

Anne looked up and her shoulders were bare, her reflection naked. Astonished, her hands touched the fabric of the cardigan that lined her collarbone, watching reflected fingers touch skin.

Her shadow self stared back at her just as curiously, and she sensed a crippled, twisted thing behind the veneer of her face.

“Tell me,” Anne whispered and felt silly again but then not. “Tell me how to do what I want.”

But what did she want?

“I want to be free,” she choked.

Darkness crept across her reflection like slowly spreading ink. Anne wiped at her forehead and hair to get it away, slowly at first and then more frantically.

She heard the words form, and imagined they were spoken in the same voice who wrote The Science of Dreaming.

The shadow self does not care. The shadow self does not compromise.

It was her own mouth, speaking the words in the mirror.

Time drummed, cracked, and stopped.

The Face widened its lips and bared its teeth in a mockery of her smile. Something flapped and landed on her head. A flash like scales in water as chains coiled up from her reflection’s mouth along her cheeks. The chains gleamed and dripped like sausage casings. And when Anne’s eyes moved up to what held the chains—

Anne moaned. The thing. It looked like a gargoyle or monkey, a small creature squatting on her head, with a long, lean jaw and tiny pinpricks of eyes full of an all-too-human spite.

The creature shot her a sidelong grin, goo oozing from its mouth as it gave a jerk of the chains through hooked claws and her reflection’s head turned in response. Her reflection smiled, as much as it could with its mouth full of chains, like a horse with a bit.

Anne couldn’t scream — her throat had collapsed. She wanted to jerk back, knock over the chair, and climb out the window to get away from it — that thing. But she couldn’t move.

This is what you wanted to see. While you did nothing there, we’ve been very busy here.

“Don’t show me this!” Anne shrieked, but it came out in a haggard whisper. Her hands frantically patted the top of her hair. Nothing. In her reflection, the hands reached up and caressed the creature.

“What is on my head?” she whispered. She was frozen, the fear short-circuiting any rational thoughts.

A pet. You bred it yourself, in the dark. Feeding it every compromise, every bit of denial. Aren’t you proud?

Her hands were trembling, clutched in her lap but stayed uplifted in the mirror. The creature dropped the chains and became a blur in the background as it flew away, the sound of its leathery wings beating against each other, filling the room.

Everyone has them. Little fears. Little denials. But not everyone lets them get so big.

The Face’s eyes were completely dark, brimming over with ink as it smiled and leaned forward. Its mouth, now empty of the chains, formed an “o” and tilted down. The candle’s flame went out with a soft pssf, leaving them in complete darkness.

Anne felt a rush of hot air and couldn’t move. Asleep, a dream of course, she started to think until the darkness cleared to a monochrome landscape with a gray building straight ahead and more in the far distance. It was, she thought, the inn, the town, the world — in a horrible grayscale.

In front of her, figures paced like people, but they had no faces — instead of eyes and noses and mouths, there were blurs like smeared charcoal. But the hideous creatures that rode on their backs were sharp and in focus, their knobby legs twisting like bone ridges against the shadow people’s backs, their arms wound around necks or flicked chains as if directing disobedient horses whenever the figures strayed too far from the building.

Anne squinted as one figure came closer, and she saw the smear of a face morph into something recognizable, but only for an instant: It was Betty, the whites of her eyes rolling around, the winged creature on her shoulders with both its gnarled clawed hands stretched into her mouth, turning her head sharply back to the building.

On the ground, other creatures — not even creatures, but masses of dark sinews and gleaming tendons — pulled their way over the dust. One rose up near her feet and turned toward her. Through its dripping, slimed mass, she recognized the Face. Her face.

It spoke with a sympathy that made Anne’s heart ache. I’ll do all the things you want. You don’t have to struggle. It flowed up and a gaping hole widened in a muted screech.

Anne recoiled and tried to scream but it launched forward, its hole of a mouth aiming right toward her.

The hot, dry air churned into Anne’s throat and around her, blotting out the landscape until she was facing her reflection again, gasping for breath and gripping the sides of the chair.

Everything looked different, flatter. Her tension slipped away like bags of sand cut from her back. She tried to remember what she had been worried about.

The door clicked suddenly. “It’s raining way too hard—” Derick said, and light flooded the room. “What are you doing in the dark?”

She turned from the mirror to her husband. She couldn’t feel her face. My shadow self took it, she thought dully. She couldn’t feel anything.

She watched her shadow self say I don’t think it’s going to work out. I need to focus on my art. You’re a boring distraction. Her hand, lifting, to take off the wedding band. Anne watched her hand move over there but felt it move here, effortlessly, as if it were being lifted by invisible threads. She tried to turn to look more clearly at it, but everything was heavy, muffled, and much too hard.

She heard the voices rise, watched her hand fling out the ring in an arc of prismatic glinting.

A huge face filled the mirror, showing all its teeth. A moment later, once the light was snuffed out, Anne realized the face was her face.

A door closed and everything went dark. Anne was stuck. She tried to move, to strain and see the landscape around her, to will the blacks into grays. But the thing on her head stirred and she felt heavier than was even possible.

At times, she saw glimpses of her outside self, the dream self, occasionally passed by window displays, puddles, things that made the air shimmer slightly around Anne and strange, gray-ish things come into distorted view: the toy store, an antique store, but only for an instant. Anne tried to jerk toward them, but couldn’t move. Not until some time later, when the gray landscape and building materialized and she could walk, a little bit.

My shadow self is asleep, Anne realized thickly through her haze. She tried to run away but the creature guarding her was large and fierce and didn’t give her an inch of slack.

But it was easier now, Anne thought. She was free from decisions, from guilt, from stifled wanting. For the first time, she didn’t have to feel unhappy.

Ivy bloomed around her, made of darkness, as soft wings beat overhead. She felt something rest gently against her neck. Her mouth full and muffled, she relaxed into the shadows.

Kristina GrifantiniKC Grifant is a recent New England-to-SoCal transplant who writes horror, speculative, and scifi. KC’s recent unsettling stories include What the Storm Brings, and Mass Exodus. Visit @SciFiWri or SciFiWri.com to read more.

If you enjoyed this story, let KC know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Heather Landry.

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7 responses to “Better Halves, by KC Grifant

  1. This is a really cool story! It’s interesting to think that we carry around our denial and compromises in the shape of a pet that guides us. Sometimes it does feel overwhelming.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this story! I loved the creepy atmosphere and the suspence building up to the horrifying ending. Such a unique story concept!

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