The Enemy in the Mirror
by Sandra Miller
Table of Contents|
Part 2 appeared
in issue 160.
|part 3 of 4|
“That’s actually the reason they sent me,” he continued conversationally, nailing me to the spot with that dispassionate stare. “The President is very interested in him; in fact he’s already been flown out to Washington for some interviews. Someone like that could go far right now, politically speaking.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said, “but I really don’t...”
“But I found some other things, too.” He was still staring at me, speaking exactly, as though I had not said a word. “According to several eyewitnesses, it wasn’t Trevyn Blaine who defeated the Allacore at all. They say there was a woman there, who has since left town.”
Enough was enough. Whatever he was doing, I wanted no part of it, and I no longer cared about politeness. I turned away, determined to go to the kitchen. I wasn’t coming back out until this menacing stranger left.
Faster than I could follow, his hand shot out and clamped around my wrist, and jerked me back to the table. I cried out, more in surprise than pain, and turned to find him standing there.
“Hey, now!” The shout came from Charlie in the kitchen, watching over the counter. “There’ll be no mishandling of the waitresses, mister. You can just take your fancy-suit-wearin’ ass on down the road!”
The stranger paid no attention. “They say she fought the Allacore with summoned balls of light,” he hissed at me. “They say she’s some kind of freak. And they say she came this way.”
I was soaked with cold sweat. I was frightened — and I was angry. Who was this self-important little man to say such things to me? Freak?
I didn’t realize until I felt the stinging in my fingertips what was about to happen. And before I could stop it, gleaming white talons tore through my gloves.
He jumped back from me. “I knew it!” His composure was finally rattled, and that pleased me. I held my hands defensively in front of me, brandishing my talons at him. They were as sharp as razors and incredibly strong, and he eyed them warily. “What the hell are you?”
A distinctive sound registered over my ragged breathing, loud in the silent diner — the sound of someone cocking a shotgun. With a feral growl, I whirled around.
LaVerne stood in the doorway to the kitchen, holding the gun in both hands. Incredibly, she wasn’t aiming it at me.
“You best get on out of here, stranger. I don’t know what you’ve come here for and I don’t care, but we don’t let nobody attack our waitresses.”
“Attack?” He looked from LaVerne to me, incredulous. “Are you crazy, lady? It isn’t me waving talons at her!”
LaVerne shook her head. “Charlie and me saw you harassing her. Seems to me you’re lucky she didn’t do more than just wave them. Now you’d just better get your fanny on up the road, mister. Now.”
We stood in silence for several uncomfortable seconds after he left. LaVerne lowered the gun with shaking hands. “Ellena, what’s happened to you?”
I shook my head, fighting back tears. “It doesn’t matter. And it’s probably better if you don’t know. I’ll go back to my room now. I’ll be gone in the morning.”
“But Ellena, we can help you!”
“No.” I turned for the door. “No one can help me. I’m sorry. But I can’t let you put yourself in danger for me. I’ll leave tonight.”
I went into my little room, locked the door, and leaned against it.
I was alone again.
* * *
So I left Charlie’s Diner, alone and on foot, before the sun rose. LaVerne had left my wages in an envelope slipped under the door, so I had a little money to take with me. It lasted me through a week of aimless wandering from town to town. I was mentally lost, I didn’t know where I should go or what I should do. I knew that I couldn’t let anyone get close to me, and so I didn’t.
I was homeless and I looked it. All I owned was what I hauled around in my backpack. My few clothes and myself I cleaned in streams and ponds. I still wore my lace gloves to cover my fingers; they were ragged and had holes where my talons had torn through, but they sufficed. I attracted odd glances, but nobody really suspected what I was. Large hands and white hair did not necessarily mean Allacore, and I could hide the talons. Things were rough, but bearable.
Until the morning I woke up and found my wings had sprouted.
I was sleeping under a bench in a city park, beside a lake. I leaned over the lake with my wings spread and looked at my reflection, and cried. I cried because I was growing farther and farther away from myself, I cried because those white-feathered wings were things of such beauty, yet so unwanted, I cried because I was tired and hungry and the weather was turning cold. But most of all I cried because I wanted my life back, and I could never have it.
When my tears finally subsided, I tried to think rationally. I needed some way to cover these things. The t-shirt I was wearing was ruined; it had torn open in the back. No blouse was going to cover those things; I was going to have to cut anything I wore to let them out. But where was I going to find anything to hide them? I couldn’t venture into a store, not with these wings. I had no money anyway. I had nothing to bargain for, and nobody to bargain with. I had nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. I had a body I didn’t recognize, and not a friend to my name.
I had a lake in front of me, and the tempting thought of throwing myself in.
The thought of escape loomed in front of me like a dark abyss, dizzying to contemplate. I had been through so much in the last few weeks... For a little while, kneeling there at the edge of that lake, my control crumbled and I felt terribly sorry for myself. Sorry enough, for a moment, to end it all.
A hiccup from the dirt path caught my attention, and I looked up to see a man swaggering by. The sun was barely up, but this fellow had obviously already been hitting the sauce. He clutched a paper bag in his right hand, and he made his unsteady way down the red dirt path on sandals. He was wearing a black cloak that trailed along on the ground behind him.
I grabbed my bag and ran to catch up with him, praying my t-shirt was still in one piece enough to hold. He stood and regarded me, swaying slightly in the morning sun. “Well, what have we here,” he said. “Looks like one of them Allashores. G’morning, missy.”
“Good morning,” I said.
“What’s good about it?” he demanded, his mood abruptly changing. “This damn sun is hurting my eyes, not warming my bones. My feet’s cold.”
“Well,” I said carefully, not wanting to precipitate another mood swing, “that could be because you are wearing sandals. What you need are some warmer shoes.”
He didn’t anger. Instead, he became mournful. “Ah, yes, some warm shoes. Can’t, though. Got no money.”
“Well,” I said again, “I have some sneakers here that might work. Would you be willing to trade for, say, your cloak?”
He brightened. “This old thing? Sure, sure... show me the shoes.”
I pulled my Reeboks out of my bag and gave them to him. I had bought them at a thrift store to fit my feet, which had grown as oversized as my hands. The sneakers were an oddly large size, and they were almost new. But they had almost immediately become too small, and the hide on my feet was tough enough now I generally went barefoot. He whistled. “These are nice, missy, real nice. Nicer than this old cloak. You sure you want to trade?”
I shrugged. “I don’t need the shoes. I could use a cloak.”
“Done.” He handed me the cloak, and sat down to put on his sneakers. I was pleased to see that they fit him; at least as well as the sandals had. I didn’t want to feel like I had cheated a homeless drunk just because he was the only person who would possibly deal with me.
* * *
With the cloak covering my torn shirts and feathered wings, I felt much less conspicuous, even though people still recognized me easily enough for what I was. I wandered for another couple of days, avoiding people completely, until my hunger got the best of me. Allacores, I knew, would kill an animal and eat it raw, but I would not stoop to that level. At the edge of a town, I found a little pastel blue house with lace curtains showing in the windows, and neatly kept window boxes with pansies growing in them. The pastel blue reminded me of the curtains in my old room at Trevyn’s apartment, and for no better reason than that, I decided to try it.
There was no answer when I knocked on the door. I cautiously tried the knob. It turned, so I pushed the door open and stepped inside with some trepidation. No one was in sight, but I could hear old-timey piano music drifting in from the hallway to the left, so that was the direction I started. “Hello? Is anyone home?”
The white-haired lady that peeked around the corner at me should have been someone’s grandmother, if she wasn’t. The bespectacled eyes widened as they took me in, but instead of the shriek I expected, she just swallowed hard, and held an arm out toward me. “Come on in,” she said, her voice quavering only a little. “You must be starved. I’m sure we have something in here somewhere that you would like to eat. I made some vegetable soup for my son’s visit. You are welcome to it.”
I was more than a little surprised — this was the first person who had shown me kindness since LaVerne. I followed her into the small kitchen, where she was already ladling steaming soup into a chipped bowl. “You mean you — you aren’t afraid of me?” She was the first person I had met in days who hadn’t run screaming from me or tried to kill me outright, and I was grateful for her hospitality.
She glanced at me from the corner of her eyes as she placed the bowl in front of me. “Of course I’m afraid of you, dear — truth be told I’m scared half to death. But if you wanted to do me harm, you certainly wouldn’t have come in like you did. You had plenty of chance. And you look like you haven’t eaten decently in days. I don’t know how much help I can be, but I can offer you something to fill you belly.” Something other than me, her wide eyes told me.
Resisting a strong urge to bury my face in the bowl — something that would surely only strengthen the fear she was so obviously fighting against — I reached for the tablespoon she had brought with the soup. It was unexpectedly unfamiliar, and I fumbled with it, trying to get my clumsy fingers around it. It was frustrating and embarrassing, and tears burned at the backs of my eyes. I finally gave up and wrapped my hand around the handle in a fist — I was determined not to eat like the creature I was coming to resemble.
She watched me struggle with the spoon, and I tried not to notice her watching. I ducked my head to hide my angry tears, and so I was startled to feel her hand fall on my shoulder. I looked up at her in surprise, and she looked down at me with undisguised sympathy. “You poor dear,” she said softly. “I don’t know what’s happened to you, but you haven’t always been like this, have you?”
I shook my head, blinking back more unexpected tears at her kindness. Concentrating, I tried to dip the spoon in the soup to eat, and ended up slopping some out of the bowl. This was so damned frustrating! I had the motor skills of a toddler — I couldn’t control my own hands enough to eat soup from a spoon! I moaned and tried again.
The grandmotherly lady brought me a linen napkin. She placed it beside my bowl with a hand that shook slightly from age and fear — not clumsiness, like me. “I don’t want to upset you, dear,” she said hesitantly, “but maybe that would be easier for you if you drink it from the bowl.”
“Like an animal?” I cried in anguish.
She sat down across the table from me. “No, not like an animal — like a person. Didn’t you ever drink your milk from the cereal bowl when you were a child?”
It was getting hard to remember what it had been like to be a child. I nodded uncertainly. “Yes,” I said, and as I said it, I really could remember. “Yes, I did.”
“I still do,” she said conspiratorially. “You don’t have to eat like an animal — or like an Allacore. You can be perfectly civilized without using that spoon that’s giving you fits.”
I liked this lady more by the minute. “Thank you,” I said hoarsely, and I meant it. She had shown me how to retain my dignity when I thought there was no chance. I cupped my hands carefully around the bowl, mindful that with my still unaccustomed brute strength I could easily break it, and drank deeply of the hot soup. I could feel it all the way down to my belly, which grumbled in gratitude. I drank again, and emptied the bowl by half.
My first meal in days completely occupied my attention. I never heard the approaching footsteps. The first clue I had that someone else was in the house was the cold barrel of the gun pressed against my temple. “Get up, Allacore.”
My talons snapped out in my sudden fear, shattering the bowl and spilling soup all over the table and me. “Ronald!” the lady gasped. “Put that thing away! Get out of here!”
“I said get up, Allacore!” Ronald apparently had no intention of obeying. I rose from the table, slowly, so he wouldn’t freak out and shoot me.
The grandmotherly lady stood too. “Ronald, please! This young lady is my guest. Let her eat, she’s... ”
“This is no one’s guest, Mother. She’s an Allacore!”
“No, she isn’t.” She held her hands out to her son, attempting to placate him. “Please, put down the gun. This girl is human!”
“Human?” The gun ground into my temple. “She’s the one they are looking for — the one from the university!”
“Wait,” I said, starting to turn around. “I’ll go, there’s no...”
“Don’t move. I’ll shoot you where you stand, I swear it. You’re not leaving here until the police take you away.”
His mother sank into her chair. “You called the police? Oh, Ronald. What have you done?”
I could hear the cars squealing into the driveway already. “Honestly, Mother, I don’t understand you.” He was unapologetic. “This woman is dangerous. I know you’ve heard the news reports — and I find you in here eating with her?”
Like something out of a nightmare, police officers swarmed into the room, guns drawn. They surrounded me and herded me out; my last view of the house was of Ronald’s mother, sitting in her chair shaking her head and moaning, “Oh, Ronald” over and over.
Copyright © 2005 by Sandra Miller