Opposite Equals Advance by Sam Levy

Monday, November 29, 2021
Drama major Luna Narkissos is so obsessed with her self-image she loses track of who she really is; by Sam Levy.

In the glass, the outline of my reflection bounced slightly each time the pharmacy door slammed. I appeared vaguely delineated, the sharp edges separating the atoms of my body from those outside it bleeding together, forming a shadowy silhouette. Still, here were the curves of the hips, singing out on either side like a cello; there, the slim shoulders holding up the image in a frame. I strained to make out the features of my face, but it was opaque and amorphous, a deep pool.


The pharmacist's bellow roused me from my trance, like a silk veil slipping down. Her gaze lingered on my face a moment too long.

"And I'll need to see your ID."

I glanced down at my driver's license as I passed it across the counter. My eyes appeared as two glassy green spheres pierced by the reflected light of the flash. My brown hair cascaded over my shoulders, glistening at the opportunity for exposure.

The pharmacist's name tag read "Peggy," and I studied her face as she did mine while she compared it with its image. Her box-dyed red hair was stacked on top of her head, two tightly curled ringlets framing her face. Peggy looked like she had dabbed on some foundation and perhaps given herself a couple swift swipes of mascara. The fingers gripping my ID had chipped remnants of old red nail polish, obviously bitten to the quick.

"Have you taken this before? Do you have any questions?" she asked, glancing at my photograph one last time before handing me the card. Her open mouth revealed small square teeth, slightly yellowed, that sat in a neat row, like identical houses in a suburb.

"Yes, I have. And no, I don't."

As I reached for the bag of meds, an uncanny feeling began to spread down my body, a prickly burning like a limb regaining circulation. I paused until recognition took hold of me. It was the sensation of being watched. The pharmacist gave me a puzzled look, and I turned, my eyes taking a last look at the reflection I cast in the glass, its pane revealing not one silhouette, but two.

Light rain pattered against the windows of the classroom, creating a lulling effect, and the grey tint cast by the day gave the room a hazy, sleepy quality. Somewhere, a student was rhythmically tapping a pencil on their notebook. I shifted in my seat and adjusted my miniskirt, rubbing my legs together, bringing to mind the melodious chirps once thought to be made by crickets' legs and now known to actually come from the rubbing of their wings. The boy next to me, whose name I could never remember, couldn't help a furtive glance in my direction.

Psychology had always been a particularly interesting subject for me, likely due to the number of therapists I'd seen over the years. I'd even considered it as a major, but couldn't resist the lure of drama - pretending to be somebody else, living out grand parts as characters in storylines far more interesting than those in everyday life, the thrill of being seen.

Professor Sophia strode in with her briefcase in one hand and a Styrofoam cup of coffee in the other. Her square-cut, dark brown suit reminded me of a roach's shell, practical and protective, her hair predictably coiffed in a tight bun at the base of her neck. Throwing her things on her desk, she looked with half-hopeful eyes across the classroom and let out an audible sigh.

"Today, we will be discussing Carl Jung's concept of the persona. If you've done your reading, you'll know Jung's reasoning for the use of this term in his psychoanalytic theory."

A quick scan revealed that most people were subtly looking down at their phones. The professor's gaze settled on me with what felt like hostility. All semester her expression had held a mixture of disdain and disappointment whenever she looked at me, with her narrowed eyes and slightly curled lip, like she was communicating that I wasn't living up to my full potential. I broke the tension by pretending to tie my shoelaces. Professor Sophia had won the staring contest.

I'd done the reading, but the professor's general attitude toward me dissuaded me from speaking up on most of the material we covered, thus compounding her opinion of me, leaving me trapped in a feedback loop where she caused me to act in the very way that bred her low expectations.

A girl in the first row raised her hand. "The persona is the face we present to the world. The concept derives from the Latin theatrical masks worn by actors. In Jung's estimation the persona is like a mask that is worn to make others see you the way you want them to and to conceal the inner self."

I considered the history of my craft as an actor having spawned Jung's terminology. In reality, I thought of humans as always being actors, presenting one face or another to each person we meet. Our personas even extend to ourselves, our collection of traits, beliefs, and desires creating the illusion of the self and causing us to construct the mask we wear when we face ourselves. The persona is inescapable, ever present each time we encounter our reflection in a mirror or image in a photograph.

"And what does Jung say can be dangerous about the persona?" Professor Sophia prompted.

"That people become identical to their persona, and all sense of the inner self becomes lost. Someone becomes unable to distinguish between the facade they put on for the world and their true self, becoming a shell with only a superficial understanding of life."

I couldn't see the girl's face, but there was something so familiar about her voice and the way her hair made little S waves down her back. She must have felt my eyes on her because she turned in her seat and looked me dead in the eye, causing blood to rush into my cheeks. I quickly glanced back at Professor Sophia, but the girl's eyes continued burning into me for a few more moments before she finally turned away.

"I hate that girl," Olivia muttered, stomping her Dr. Martens as she neared. She kicked the leg of a chair and crossed her arms.


"That know-it-all in the miniskirt with the photographic memory and ability to charm any dude she wants into following her around. She has a perfect nose," Olivia whined, throwing her bleached-blonde bob across her face with a pout.

My roommate had a tendency to lead with her biggest character flaw of finding something to envy about most girls. Freshman year, we met auditioning for the same part in Fiddler on the Roof. Although neither of us got the part, she later approached me and complimented me on my performance, but almost with a wariness, as though something had momentarily shaken loose in the building blocks of her identity. Sometimes I still caught that glint in her eye when she looked at me, a mixture of self-doubt and an emptiness longing to be filled.

"Who are you talking about? Perfect nose?"

Olivia rolled her eyes. "Luna!" she yelled at me with a snap of her fingers. "That girl who sits in the front row and knows the answer to every question. I swear that bitch has superpowers."

"Oh right. She gave me the weirdest look during class today, like I peed in her cereal," I said.

Olivia snorted and continued talking, but I didn't hear what she said. I tended to tune her out when she began ranting about the ways other girls made up for what she was lacking. I glanced down at my onyx and gold watch.

"Oh shit. I'm going to be late for bio," she said, tapping me lightly on my shoulder as she brushed past.

The empty classroom silenced with relief, the muffled, faraway voices of students seeming like sounds heard under water. I slipped into the nearest chair, immersed in the alleviation of being alone, when a notification ping on my phone threatened to bring me back into the world of others. I looked reluctantly, the screen quickly filling up my entire field of vision.

The absence of sound warped from conveying a sense of serenity to giving off the oppressiveness of heat. A bead of sweat ran down between my breasts, and my heart felt like a fluttering bird trapped in a cage. The moment focused on me with intensity, reminding me that even during the brief moments of reprieve when I was alone at last, I wasn't truly alone.

"You look nice today." The message had come from a private account, and it wasn't the first one. For months I had been receiving unsettling notes from anonymous Instagram accounts. Each time I blocked one, another would replace it, always with the same profile picture of a mirror reflecting another mirror, creating the illusion of an eternal echo.

They had to be from Kyle, although I hadn't seen him in at least a year. I couldn't remember how we met. Friends of friends or something probably. What I did remember about Kyle was his intense gaze cutting across the room as it followed me, carving a wake out of the crowd at parties and in the student coffee shop. He studied my face, my figure, with the fascination of beholding an exotic bird he sought to cage.

At first Kyle bored me. A business major, proudly reliant on his family money, and eternally dressed in overpriced but underwhelming polo shirts. He hung around my group, most of us artists and performers, and tried various routes to acceptance with the success of being tolerated at best. But then I noticed how his voice would quiver slightly when he addressed me, how his hands would never settle in one place for long. I had gotten a hold on him. I could see it in the captivation on his face, and it flared into a source of intoxication for me. I could light him up with a seemingly meaningful glance and send him reeling into self-doubt with a few harsh words. I began pulling his strings and pushing his buttons, drunk with my newfound power.

But then he started sending me rambling, berating Instagram messages at 3:00am that he would unfailingly apologize for the next day. I caught glimpses of him lurking outside my classes, the directness of his stare conveying a desperation that became a stranglehold on me. Then one day he vanished. Rumors circulated that he'd dropped out because of family or money problems or from the pressure of Freshman year. I was ambivalent about his disappearance, relieved yet still clinging to my wiles.

The anonymous messages were accompanied by the sense of a lingering presence, like shapes in the corner of my eye that continuously evaded me. A feeling that permeated my being to the bones told me he had returned to toy with me, just as I had toyed with him.

I sat absorbed in the photos on my Instagram gallery, my daily practice in narcissism. Unlike Olivia, who stalked everyone who piqued her interest, I had a secret obsession with self-stalking.

I studied the photos friends had snapped of me or that I had taken myself - the sheen of my olive skin, the legs that unfolded like a paper fan, the way my back arched like a cat stretching after a nap. Part of me felt like this ritual of staring at myself was an exercise in self-love, an appreciation of my body, almost in worship, but it also seemed to pose a question of identity, as I often wondered who and what the person in the photographs was. I slipped into a meditation on the nature of the self, shaped by what had been inherited from a lineage of blood strangers who had struggled for survival in order to lend their features to those who would replace them.

George Bernard Shaw's words often crossed my mind during these sessions, reminding me that "Life is about creating yourself." I delighted in projecting the impression that my life was more interesting than it was in reality. Candid shots, surrounded by laughing friends at dive bars and in people's backyards. Getting rowdy, running through the woods in our combat boots and brightly colored shawls. My fear of being uninteresting was assuaged when I was immersed in the photos, the notion taking hold of me that this constructed version of myself mattered more.

Sometimes it seemed like someone else was looking back at me from the screen. When I had this sensation, I felt myself collapse into what I can only call a state of two dimensionality, like a paper doll.

"So did you get the part?" Olivia asked, popping her head into my room.

I quickly slid my phone under the bedspread and then stared at her with a blank expression.

"In The Double?" she said impatiently, flopping down on the end of the bed. "Or whatever Mrs. Ainger is calling this stage interpretation. Dostoyevsky is probably flipping us off in his grave."

"Oh," I chuckled. "I'm not sure. Casting is posted tomorrow."

"Who else is up for the part?"

"I didn't stay to watch. Felt confident in my audition and didn't want to get kicked in the teeth by insecurity," I said.

"I heard that girl we hate auditioned and made Mrs. Ainger, like, cry in her performance dude," Olivia said with her trademark eyeroll.

"You hate her," I laughed. "She just keeps popping up. What's her goddamn name?" I asked, carefully doling out my meds and taking them with a swig of water.

"Yeah, like a fucking Whack-A-Mole. Who cares what her name is."

I approached the drama room with sweaty palms and a sore lip from where I'd bitten the skin off in nervousness. Scanning the casting sheet, I felt my vision become myopic as I stared at a single word. Understudy. I was cast as the lead role's understudy. My disappointment was quickly overtaken by ebullient rage, and I dug my nails into my palms until they hurt.

A familiar scent emerged around me, syrupy - almost saccharin - and I realized I wasn't alone in the room. I felt magnetized to the spot, something unseen holding my shoulders in place. Moments passed during which my breath was all I could process, a rhythmic give and take. The classroom door slammed behind my back, the spell broken, and I turned just in time to see a dark shadow pass across the other side of the glass.

"Bummer bro," said a voice at my side. I turned to see Killian Michaels, who had gotten the lead male role in the play, seemingly come from nowhere. Killian was recklessly good looking, with gilded skin that shone bronze in the sun and the physique of a Greek marble statue. There was something intangible behind his eyes - one blue, one green - that formed a kind of blurry watercolor in my subconscious, like trying to remember a dream that was fading fast while the emotions the dream evoked still clung to me. I hadn't spoken to him much, but I couldn't help but stare at him because he lacked self-consciousness in a way that gave his actions the impression of effortlessness. What Olivia called an inherent cool. He did things like no one was watching, even though everyone was.

"Huh?" I stared.

"Your audition was solid. It's that weird girl. She has an in with Mrs. Ainger. Totally rigged." Killian leaned his back against the wall with one leg slightly bent and arms folded. He seemed to fit into the space he occupied with ease, as though he had run through the scene before, practiced it until he figured out exactly how to look and what to say.


"I don't know. She was here a little bit ago. Kind of gives me the creeps," Killian shrugged and started moving toward the door.

"Ah, that girl. My roommate hates her."

"It's Luna, right?" he asked while searching my face. "You're in my world religions class, yeah?"

I nodded slightly, cautiously following his stride down the hallway.

"I think we're starting a unit on Buddhism this week," he said. I remained painfully silent. He tried another route. "You used to hang with that Kyle Forbes guy, huh?"

"Oh, I uh," I stammered. "Sort of. Until he got a little too keen on me."

"Yeah, I saw the way he followed you around," Killian said with a side-eyed glance. "He always seemed a bit off. Have you seen him around?"

"Not since last year."

"Damn, he owes me $50," Killian laughed. "Hey, so I'm throwing a party tonight. Low-key affair. Bring a friend if you want. Get my digits."

I yanked my phone out of my bag gracelessly, causing my prescription bottle to launch out into the hallway. Killian reached for the bottle before I could stop him.

"Shit. Those are serious," he said with his eyebrows raised, handing the bottle back to me.

"It's a long story." I glanced down at my phone.

"I see. Well, here's my number. Come," he said as we reached the classroom door. He handed me my phone and walked into the room, looking for a moment over his shoulder with a slight grin.

Our discussion on Buddhism veered slightly off track when Diana, a girl in heavy eyeliner and dark cherry-red lipstick, raised her hand.

"Professor Shafer, I was wondering if you could tell us about Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the concept of the tulpa." Some students glanced back at Diana with curiosity.

"Ah," said Professor Shafer with a smile, her lined face conveying a brightening look, likely excited at the chance to veer away from the perfunctory syllabus. Her boots squeaked slightly as she made her way to sit on her desk.

"The tulpa comes from Tibetan mysticism. A tulpa is basically something that is produced by one's mental powers, namely their concentration on an object or person. The tulpa manifests for the purpose of doing one's bidding, but it can also turn on its creator and torment them. Theosophists of the 20th century took the concept to mean 'manifestation' or 'thoughtform,' and more modern ideas consider the tulpa to be capable of sentience and even the ability to act autonomously." Professor Shafer's eyes twinkled, and her face had an almost foreboding look, a wry smile slowly emerging. "So be careful where you focus your attention."

I locked eyes with Killian for a moment, entranced by his expression, which was somewhat grave. Then I realized he was actually staring at the classroom window behind me, and I watched as his eyes passed from one side to the other with a sense of wonder or panic. I couldn't tell which.

When class ended, I tried to make my way toward Killian, but he walked out the door urgently, and I lost him in the shuffle of students. I was distractedly searching for him in the hallway when I bumped directly into Professor Sophia, knocking the papers and coffee out of her hands. She made a searingly harsh sound in the back of her throat and gave me her signature cutting stare as we both bent down to collect what had spilled out of her arms.

"Sorry, I wasn't watching -" I began, but she abruptly cut me off.

"That's apparent. Focusing so much on oneself does have its consequences, you know."

I stared at her with embarrassment, but she was looking through me, and the sensation of flattening into that paper doll took hold of me. I felt void, like the secrets I had been holding deep inside of me poured out into her mug. I was transparent, vapid. Her beakish face raised an eyebrow as if in warning when she pushed past me, leaving me with my hollowness.

"Come on! This will be fun, I promise," Olivia insisted, practically dragging my arm through the parking lot toward Killian's apartment. The night felt heavy with the promise of rain, and thunder rolled lightly somewhere in the distance. All the tree branches swirled above us in the wind, creaking and shaking with tested strength. "You got all pretty for your man. Best friend in tow. Night on the town."

I made a noise that was somewhere between a scoff and a snort. "He's not my man. We talked for like two seconds, and he probably thinks I'm insane."

"So he saw your meds. Everyone is on something, I'm telling you. Kelly is on Prozac, Sawyer takes Klonopin like its candy. It's really not a thing."

Our conversation stopped abruptly when we saw the flashing lights that drenched the brick buildings in red and blue. The light hit the surrounding trees, the shadows the branches cast looking like gnarled arms stretching out over the small crowd that was gathering around the police tape encircling the entrance to a home next to Killian's apartment complex.

"Hey guys." Killian had appeared without warning at our side. "Pretty crazy, right?"

"What the hell is going on?" Olivia asked.

"You haven't heard? We were just at the party a few doors down when we saw all the commotion. It's Professor Sophia. I guess she lives here. She was, like, murdered. 'Brutally cut up' is what someone said."

"Seriously?" Olivia's eyes widened, her mouth agape.

"Do they know who did it?" I quickly asked, feeling sweat begin to rise to my pores.

"I don't think so," he said as his eyes scanned the crowd, "but they're probably lurking. Murderers tend to do that."

"Well, I guess psychology is cancelled tomorrow," Olivia said. Killian and I looked at her. "Sorry, I have an inappropriate sense of humor when terrible things happen."

The bodies of the spectators bobbed and weaved while attempting to gawk at the scene. A feeling washed over me, making everything seem poignantly familiar, like I was on the verge of a déjà vu experience that couldn't quite manifest itself. Everything about the moment felt so personal, as if the eye of the universe was zeroing in on me, almost suffocating me with a sense of significance. The sway over me was broken by a notification noise on my phone. Olivia and Killian had wandered off in an attempt to get a better look over everyone's heads. I glanced down at my phone screen.

"You're welcome."

The entire campus was buzzing with the news of Professor Sophia's death the following day. At the school assembly, students whispered speculations about motives, suspects, and the gruesome details. The dean announced that a moment of silence was to be held in Professor Sophia's honor, but rather than conveying a sense of respect, the quiet felt more like a vacuum, producing a sort of gravitational pull that sucked the oxygen out of the room. The air seemed too thin to breathe, and I quietly made my way out the back door.

Unknowingly, Mrs. Ainger had snuck out behind me.

"Such a tragedy, isn't it?" She clicked her tongue and wrung her hands together, speaking in that affected way that only drama teachers do, an artificiality in her tone.

"Indeed," I muttered curtly, avoiding eye contact at all cost.

"Who could've seen it coming?" Mrs. Ainger was a fan of flowery blouses and fuchsia lipstick drawn in an overlined way that exaggerated her lips. She gave off a thick scent of sharp perfume that clouded the lungs and pricked the nose.

We stood in uncomfortable silence that was only broken by Mrs. Ainger occasionally making a soft clucking sound. Finally glancing at her face, I realized she was staring into mine with what looked like an apologetic expression.

"As a drama major, you're bound to have setbacks from time to time. Eventually your skin will toughen from the onslaught of rejection. Trudge on. Keep going until recognition is inevitable. You've got the talent, a striking look, a command of the stage."

"Thanks," I responded with what I hoped sounded like sincerity.

"One day a part will come along that you are made for, that is yours and yours alone, unwilling to bend to anyone else's will."

I sat in the waiting room of Dr. Shapiro's office, my fingers automatically reaching for my phone and pulling up my gallery. All the students were required to see a therapist after Professor Sophia's death to ensure we were "coping with the shock of the event." Was this shock? My deepest emotions were usually kept on a shelf out of reach, only to be accessed when something seeped into the cracks of my exterior. A self-preservation instinct kept me detached, even - or especially - from myself, causing me to move through the world almost watching from beside myself as I acted. I asked myself who it was that made those choices, said those things, as if another person had taken the lead role in my life.

My self-contemplation halted when I noticed a new follower notification on my phone with the handle Kill.or.be.Killian. Killian quickly liked two of my recent pictures, a selfie I'd taken lying on my back with shards of sunlight scattered across my face as they streamed in through the blinds. The other Olivia had taken of me, my long, bare legs crossed and my chin tucked into my shoulder as I giggled at some joke she had made.

My validation at Killian's attention was abruptly interrupted.

"Luna Narkissos?"

Dr. Shapiro was more attractive than I'd expected - late 30s, bespectacled in sleek, black frames, touches of grey in the hair at his temples - but also more casual, clad in a charcoal grey knit zip sweater and jeans. My eyes couldn't help but travel over his figure as he stood in the doorway, and as I rose to move toward him, I noticed his eyes flit down my body as well, in an unconsciously evaluative sort of way.

"Right this way."

His office was minimally decorated with tchotchkes and succulents, and a wide window framed a skyline of glass buildings that reflected the sun. The most striking object was the large mirror on the wall behind his desk, an odd feature for a therapist's office.

"Is that designed to achieve maximum self-reflection in your patients?" I asked with a gesture toward the mirror.

He half laughed. "It came with the office, which was honestly the cheapest decent space I could find for my practice." Something about his delivery in speaking conveyed a sort of familiarity. I felt myself relax into the chair opposite him.

Dr. Shapiro shuffled through some papers on his desk, the fingers of his right hand lingering at his mouth. "So Luna, as you know, the school administration feels it important to check in with each student after the death of - "

"Professor Sophia," I offered.

"Right," his eyes slid onto mine like keys slipping into a lock. "Were you a student in one of her classes?"

"Psychology. Is that ironic in this setting?"

He chuckled with a wariness at my glib comment.

"And how did you respond when you heard she'd been murdered?"

I involuntarily squirmed in my chair and glanced at my reflection behind Dr. Shapiro's head, a vacant face staring back at me.

"How well did you know her?" he tried.

"Well enough for her to hate me."

He blinked. "And why did she hate you?"

"I can't speak for her, but she seemed to find me overly self-involved. Narcissistic."

"Do you see yourself as a narcissistic person?"

I uncrossed my legs, ensuring a slight gap was visible between my thighs. Dr. Shapiro's eyes concentrated harder on mine as he softly cleared his throat. "A narcissistic person? Yes. But I figure if there's anything you should fixate on in your life it should be yourself. This vessel you happened to be born into. Constructing an identity." His gaze grazed my collar bone. "What could be more fascinating?"

My attention turned back to my reflection behind Dr. Shapiro, its glass, for a moment, showing that my eyes were still locked on him.

"How did your appointment go?" Olivia asked as she dropped her backpack on the park bench with a thump and sat down next to me.

"He wants to see me again." My thumb lightly traced my lower lip.

"Really? Lucky girl."

"What?" I turned to her, unable to stop a smile from emerging at the corners of my mouth.

"Dr. Shapiro is a fucking fox dude. Don't tell me you don't see it." Olivia slung her arm over the back of the bench and hiked up her leg.

"I guess. Compared to other therapists I've had anyway. But he probably just read my medical history and thinks I'll go crazy. Or that I am crazy."

"Man, if it means you'll get to be alone in a room with him, I wish I were crazy too."

We lapsed into a silence that was only broken by distant yells from a soccer field I could make out several yards away. I stared at my hands, a habit I'd developed years ago that always gave me a sense of comfort. I'd been told they were graceful, long and delicate, that I should've been a pianist. An emerald and diamond ring my father had given me as a teenager sat on my right ring finger, my nails grown long and painted in a nude hue.

A lock of hair fell across my face, and I noticed that Olivia was staring at me.

"You look good in this light," she said, holding her hand out for my phone. "Let me take a picture."

I looked down coquettishly, moving my body into a flattering position of angles.

"First one is the best," Olivia said, returning my phone.

Her eyes flashed at mine so quickly that it was hardly perceptible. For a moment they held an intensity that I could've sworn resembled undiluted hatred. An electricity reverberated for a beat as she sat back down next to me, only to be broken when Olivia snorted at someone who'd tripped over a soccer ball and fallen on the field.

"Did you see that?" she barked. "Priceless."

The headlines were unavoidable. "Boy Found in Dilapidated Dormitory." "Body of 19-Year-Old Kyle Forbes Identified."

St. Elias Dormitory lay on the outskirts of the campus for years, its façade slowly falling into a state of decay. The crumbling brick and rotted wood had always made the building seem ominous, even dangerous. But it also brought to my mind the notion of decadence of the late 19th century - art and literature that favored ruination, insanity, and illusions of fantasy having their own reality. It was as if the building projected its own warped atmosphere, its personal perspective, allowing for a glimpse of another time and the cruelty time inflicts as it passes. There was almost a delight in the perversion the structure evoked in me, transfixing my attention each time I passed it by, like a temptation to cross a barrier into another realm.

Workers had found Kyle's mangled body stashed under the floorboards of St. Elias, two days before it was meant to be demolished. His body had sat rotting there for a year, explaining his sudden disappearance. Reporters and photographers descended upon the campus, but the spotlight placed on St. Elias only served to unnerve me further. I held onto the secret of having toyed with Kyle, not with guilt or shame, but rather a fear of being considered involved in his demise.

When I saw the headlines, I slumped into the nearest chair, flushed with confusion. Kyle had been dead for a year. He wasn't the one sending me voyeuristic messages and lurking just outside of view. So who had become fixated on me? Did I know them, or had they been longingly watching from afar?

A dinging noise from my phone snapped me back into the present moment.

"As if he deserved you."

I sat on the bathroom counter, my feet in the sink as I carefully traced my cupid's bow with a subtle pink shade. Olivia sat on the rim of the bathtub smoking weed from a pink pipe.

"Are you nervous?" she asked with a grin.

I shook my head, but the smile in my eyes gave me away.

"You should totally fuck him. Dr. Shapiro has become my new masturbation fixation," she exhaled with a puff of grey smoke.

"Jesus Olivia," I laughed. "I'm not sure fucking him would help my mental health and would probably screw me up way more than I am now." I brushed my hair back from my face. "Plus, he'd never go for it."

"You never know. I get the vibe he's secretly a pervert but in the best way. And look at yourself. Who could turn you down?"

I studied my face in the mirror without admitting to Olivia that I'd taken twice as long to do my makeup with the thought of seeing Dr. Shapiro. The yellow flecks in my eyes contrasted with the deep blue surrounding them, so they appeared green unless you knew me well enough to get that close. My skin gave off a natural, fair sheen that my father had always said reminded him of a porcelain doll. Hypnotized by my reflection, the urge to collapse into myself took hold of me. I could feel Olivia's intense concentration on my face in the mirror, but I couldn't break my own trance, fixated on the girl who sat staring back at me.

"So Luna, how have things been going since I last saw you?" Dr. Shapiro pushed his glasses up on his nose and poised his pen above his notepad. Smog filled the office window, a grey blanket settling on the room that felt thick and hot.

"A bit odd, I guess. All the media on campus, two dead bodies in one week. What the hell, you know?" I hadn't meant to bring up Kyle. It had sort of spilled out of my mouth, perhaps due to the disarming effect Dr. Shapiro had on me. His soft voice, the lingering scent of skin that naturally smelled good filling the space.

"Did you know the victim? Uh, Kyle Forbes, correct?"

"Sort of, last year. I guess he had a crush on me. He used to stare and follow me around a bit. And then one day he was just gone." I shrugged and felt my hand run down the length of my neck, Dr. Shapiro's gaze following.

"And how did that make you feel? His interest in you."

"Flattered, I suppose. But his fixation became a little intense."

"Did he scare you at any point?"

I considered the question carefully, holding my breath for a moment before letting out a soft "Yes." I wasn't sure if I meant it or not. At times Kyle's obsession had been alarming, but more so, he had made me feel an intensity I'd never experienced before. Truthfully, it had bordered on ecstasy. The intoxicating power of controlling someone with a simple glance, a reproaching remark, the slip of a sleeve off the shoulder. Kyle had been entranced by my every move, and his hyper-fixation on me had amplified my focus on the self in the mirror in my mind. Playing the part of the interesting, detached, somewhat bewildering girl, I eventually found myself slipping into becoming her. Self-doubt faded, and a me that was captivating, flirtatious, at times cruel came into being. I was reborn.

My eyes had drifted to my own reflection behind Dr. Shapiro, and the expression I caught on my face surprised me, a mixture of malice and pleasure twisting the corners of my mouth and darkening my eyes, my cheeks flushed.

Dr. Shapiro seemed to notice the shift in my attention and quickly scribbled down some notes.

"Did you ever encourage Kyle's behavior? Engage with him?"

I detected the faintest blush in Dr. Shapiro's face, his veiled meaning becoming clear.

"No," I said while studying the delicacy of my wrists. "No, I never would've considered sleeping with him."

"And why's that?" His mouth was left slightly open after speaking the words.

I looked up at him with my mouth open too.

"Oh, he just wasn't the sort of boy I would fuck." The resounding words hung in the space between us, thick like the dampness in the air after heavy rain. Dr. Shapiro's widened eyes made him seem somewhat boyish, almost naïve. I chuckled lightly, but then I detected a slight change in his demeanor, his eyes suddenly conveying an ineffable look directed at me. He rubbed his chin with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.

"Luna," he said, rising and carefully winding his way around his desk toward me. He sat on the desk's edge with his feet crossed, roughly two feet from my bent knees, and looked down at me. My face stared back at me from the lenses of his glasses, and I let my lips emerge into a small pout. "I think given your medical history and the current circumstances of you personally knowing both of the victims, we should consider weekly visits. Just to check in with what's going on with you." He stood and lingered for a moment so that my eyeline was at his waist, and then moved to close the office door.

"I like your gallery." The voice came from behind, close to my left ear, and I knew it belonged to Killian before I turned to look. "Very artsy. A good mixture of candid and posed shots. Aesthetically pleasing."

He said "aesthetically" like it was the first time he'd ever used the word out loud. I was folded into one of the lounge chairs in the student coffee shop, staring absentmindedly at my reflection in a window facing the main building with a latte in my hands.

"Thanks, Killian," I said with a brief glance in his direction.

"Mind if I?" he gestured at the chair next to me, and I gave the slightest shake of my head.

Killian slid into his seat with ease before reaching over to pick a piece of lint off my sweater at the shoulder.

"So who takes all those photos of you?" His lilypond eyes searched all around my face as he waited for a response, like he was sifting through layers of earth to get at what was buried deep beneath.

"Friends mostly. My roommate takes a lot of them. Some I take myself."

"Do you have, like, a camera setup at your apartment or something?"


"And that's where you take them yourself and can be a little freer. More experimental." It wasn't a question. His eyes narrowed. "Do you ever get, like, unwanted attention?"

I took a beat before responding.

"Of course."

"You mean like guys messaging you, wanting more content?"

"Yes. Guys ask for nudes like they deserve them. Ask me where I live. Try to show off their cocks."

Killian didn't react to my choice of words like I thought he would, his eyebrows failing to convey a sense of surprise. I thought for a moment about the messages I'd been receiving from the anonymous accounts. Killian reached toward my body and grabbed my latte from my hands, taking a large swig.

"Mmm," he said with glittering eyes, a winning smile. His gaze traveled to something behind my back, his eyes locking onto it with a magnetic click. I turned to find he was staring at the back of a girl with a fountain of wavy chocolate brown hair and a trim figure that was petite yet curvy, familiar in the way her jeans hugged her hips, her cropped top showing a sliver of skin at the small of her back.

"Well I've got to go to rehearsal for the play," Killian said. He floated toward the girl, and she turned to face him, the slightest slit of her profile revealing itself. She wasn't an obvious kind of attractive. More interesting looking than anything else. It took a few moments to register her features, but when I did, I could understand the draw Killian had toward her. Her face read like an engrossing novel that continued to deepen in its complexity the longer you stared at it. Within a few moments her expression could range from an alluring sense of self-actualization to one of superficial coldness, and there was something pleasant about the shape her mouth made when she spoke.

She was holding her audience of a few students captive with each word, her lilting laugh, her dynamic sense of presence. I could see why Mrs. Ainger had cast her as the lead in the play. Lost in taking her in, I realized I had been staring at her for several moments, and she must have felt it. With a fierce turn of her head, the girl flashed me a cutting look, one I could've sworn communicated a simple and undeniable fact. She had taken something from me.

The hot, soapy water slightly stung my skin, leaving it a bright, raw pink. I couldn't help but notice the smoothness of it - unblemished, like a doll never taken out of the box. Sinking into the bath, my muscles released until my body felt whole, united in a simple state of buoyancy. Finally alone, without the eyes of those around me tracking my every move, piqued with curious interest or jealousy or lascivious intent, I was free to practice my ritual of self-meditation. I scrolled my gallery, taking it in like someone who'd never seen it before, imagining that I was discovering it for the first time. I wondered who this girl was, what her life was like.

Viewing myself from the outside like this gave me insight into how I came across to other people. I could see myself objectively or, really, more as an object, a pretty thing on the outside, whose inside remained enigmatic, even to me.

When I attempted to study my internal state - the innermost landscape of my being - I was met with a brutal opacity, save for my image, which was sharp, almost fierce, in its definition. The girl I projected in my mind looked back at me with clear, wide eyes, lips slightly parted. Sometimes her expression was vacant, but at others, she almost seemed to challenge me, like she could do better at being me.

I noticed the steam rising around me and switched my phone to the camera. My visage was fogged in the heat, my mouth slightly swollen from the blood that had rushed to it. Dark, wet hair clung to my cheeks and neck. I slid down into the water a little, my breasts covered with suds, and snapped a few shots. I chose the one in which my eyes looked glassy and crystalline with invitation. My post was liked within a few seconds by Killian, like he'd been lying in wait.

I heard faint footsteps echoing outside the bathroom door.


A haunting silence met my question, and the silhouette of two feet appeared in the sliver underneath the door. I was still, my spine rigid, like an animal that had unexpectedly been struck by light. The water began to feel too hot, and the room fogged into a hazy watercolor. I couldn't move and sank into the moment, unable to keep it from overtaking me.

"Is that you?" I tried once more, my voice sounding far away.

The figure lingered a moment before backing away, but the mist that had settled in my mind remained with me.

Olivia hadn't been home in three days. At first I figured she had finally met a guy and was holed up somewhere with him, but then I received a concerned call from her mother, who told me Olivia hadn't even called on her father's birthday the day before. What I didn't tell Olivia's mother was that this eerily felt somehow directed at me, like I was the reason for it. First Professor Sophia, then the discovery of Kyle's body, and now Olivia. All of these people had circled me in one way or another. Was it a coincidence? Then why did it feel so wholly personal?

People on campus began to stare at me even more than they had before, their attention on me amplified by the chaos that had descended upon the campus. Maybe it was all in my mind, but I felt like the center of everyone's focus. Like I was playing a character on a television show about my life. Perhaps a horror movie or a mystery that the audience was trying to get to the bottom of.

Dr. Shapiro sat turned with his back to me, typing away on his computer. When he finally faced me, I could tell he was avoiding eye contact, looking down at his notes as he asked me, "How have things been going since we last met? I heard your roommate, uh, Olivia? I heard she's been absent for a few days."

"And how did you hear that?"

He shuffled his notes with what seemed like nervousness.

"Oh the faculty talk, you know. Word gets around. Do you have any idea where she might be? Knowing her so well?"

"To tell the truth, we've never really been that close. I suppose I've always managed to keep people at arm's length. I don't really place trust in anyone. Even myself at times. Maybe it's about the intimacy, or maybe it's commitment issues. I don't invest too much time or energy in people. Everyone ends up leaving in the end."

"Do you think that has anything to do with your focus on yourself? You mentioned being somewhat narcissistic."

I put my elbow on the armrest, and my chin slid into my hand, finally catching his eye.

"Come on now. Is that really what you want to talk about?"

The school play was days away when Mrs. Ainger approached me after drama class.

"Hello, dear. I hope you've been handling the recent events well. It seems that we've been living in a real-life drama of late."

I nodded, distracted by the vibrant sanguine pattern splattered across her dress that hurt my eyes the longer I stared at it. Her signature scent encircled me, clouding my lungs with sickly sweetness.

"It seems we have a small emergency with the play. The female lead is unable to fulfill her commitment to the part," she said vaguely. "I was hoping you might be able to step in and take on the role. It would really quite help me out of this sticky situation."

"Of course," I burst out almost convulsively.

"You know the lines, the blocking, I assume?"

"Backwards and forwards," I assured her.

"Very noble of you, Luna. I'm sure you'll give a commanding performance." Her eyes sparkled, her smile revealing a small smudge of fuchsia lipstick on her teeth.

I wandered the campus in a daze, the notion of leading the play consuming my thoughts. The idea of all those eyes on me gave me a nervous flush, a heat coursing in my veins, my being feeling like it could scorch right through my clothing. I felt beyond the limitations of my physical body and was floating above myself, watching my form winding its way between people.

This would be my moment, my official debut on the world stage. I would move from the amateur side-eyed glances of those seeking to copy or contain me to a true spotlight. The world would know me at last.

In the midst of my buoyant elation, a notification noise pinged on my phone, slamming me back into my body.

I already knew it would be from another anonymous account with that same eternally reflecting mirror. The heat surging throughout me suddenly turned to an acrid acid rising up from my stomach to my throat, bile boiling up from my core.

"Come to St. Elias in two nights' time if you want her back. Tell no one. Come alone."

It took a few moments to process the text on the screen. Whoever had been watching me unseen had taken Olivia, but my concern for her was quickly overtaken by the realization that they had requested me to meet them on the night of the play's debut. The ludicrous thought of how I could be in two places at once popped into my head.

Every piece of the identity I had carefully constructed was leading to that moment when I would walk out onto the stage and be seen. It was as though whoever was tormenting me knew the cosmic significance of my debut, and they had found a way to steal it out from under me. Who could know me so well as to choose the very thing that would unglue all the porcelain shards of the identity I had pieced together?

The moonlight bounced playfully off the trees and buildings as I made my way across the campus. When the moon was this full and bright, I often thought about random people at parties who had asked me what my astrological sign was. I never really believed in astrology, finding it absurd to fit complex people into tiny boxes that supposedly defined them based on the placement of the planets at their birth, but the audacious fullness of the celestial body somehow demanded my contemplation.

As a Gemini I was meant to be somewhat two-faced, presenting a duality of personalities that meant I was incomplete and constantly searching for the other half of myself. I had to admit that I had at times felt like something was missing, or rather someone, like I was continuously seeking out an elusive part of myself, almost chasing her. But she was always just out of my reach.

The moon's glow made the shape of St. Elias's grotesque form come subtly into view in the distance. The path I walked was lined with buttercups that gave off a sweetness that was as welcoming as it was unsettling. That uneasiness reminded me of the failing structure's verboten, almost ghastly appeal. Foulness, like that from musk and ambergris, has been used as the base of perfumes for thousands of years, with something that enchants the senses stemming from something seemingly obscene. It's like St. Elias gave off such an alluring scent, beckoning with its decay, its promise to meet you with something sweeter if you would just come closer. The building's face had an undeniable pull on me, shrouded in gloomy live oaks, grand in its domed door frames, somehow seeming to tear at the seams of reality in its ability to exist in two states at once - one in beauty and one in ruin.

I treaded lightly toward the entranceway, attempting to slip through the crack in the oversized double doors, but they creaked loudly, announcing my presence to whomever lay in wait. Involuntary tension arose, tightening the back of my neck so that I could barely turn it, but I scanned the lobby with my eyes. The air was thick and damp, and beams of wood, disintegrating and rotted, fell in the corners, the ceiling cracking like shards of a broken mirror. Nails poked through the sweeping staircase, its glossy sheen long overtaken by a dull finish. I crept, but the fragility of the steps made them feel like my feet could go right through them.

Making my way to the top of the stairs, I halted as a silent, shadowy figure emerged to meet me. It struck me as deeply familiar - the outline of the hourglass hips, the long torso, but I struggled to make out the face in the depths of the darkness.

A surging recognition took hold of me. I was looking into a mirror.

Momentarily glancing to the side, I noticed a crumpled Olivia in the corner, her hair plastered across her face so that it was hidden. I began to utter her name, but my attention was once again drawn to my reflection. I was mesmerized and moved forward cautiously.

The girl in the mirror didn't have the slightest expression of surprise, narrowing her eyes and running her tongue across her lips. I stepped closer, an insatiable urge driving me to reach out my hand to meet her own.

It felt like an eternity of motion. My fingers stretched to touch hers, the mirror casting a symmetry of two facets of the same object finally uniting.

Her hand reached to meet mine, and I couldn't help but notice the perfection of her long fingers and petite wrists. I touched her with the delicacy of touching water while attempting to avoid creating ripples. Her eyes remained fixed on mine.

The mirror cracked, shattering at the pressure of my fingertips. The sound was overwhelming, discordant as the glass ground together and spat out splinters of shards. The force felt strong enough to bring the whole building tumbling to the ground. Veins of the split surface spread across the mirror out from the place I had touched until all I could see were fractured pieces of myself staring back at me. I looked like a doll whose ceramic face had been shattered, broken beyond repair.

The girl began to turn, giving me one last fierce look - lips parted and pink, a triumphant smile - and began her descent down the stairwell. I touched the glass once more, and my motion felt delayed and heavy, like when moving in a dream. I could only watch the S waves bouncing down her back as she walked away, leaving me trapped where she had emerged from.

The stage lights were turned down with an amber glow, indicating that the play was about to begin. She made her way through the cast of characters backstage, each face turning to stare at her unapologetically. With makeup that carefully exaggerated her features, she was like a living doll. Captivating, commanding attention, her figure seemed to float past the others. She almost crackled from the electricity surging off her in ripples.

She took a final glance in the mirror backstage, eyes lit and alive, casting off the momentarily caged expression of the girl looking back at her, a grin spreading her mouth at the sight. The house lights flickered, and she walked onto the stage, at last embodied and seen.

1 comment:

  1. Super engrossing, very well written with an excellent pace. This feels finely crafted. I especially appreciated the sensory elements, especially the description of the scents. This could easily have been overwritten, but you trusted the reader and the result is hugely compelling.