BY ANN KEELING
Copyright is held by the author.
WHEN DARCY Globe looks in the mirror, she often likes what she sees. But lately, there are more lines and if she is honest, a haggard look. This is not consistent with how she feels on the inside. At 35, on track to be partner at Schultz and Makiba by 40, her career is on fire.
Thankfully, her new husband, Jason, loves the way she looks. His adoration is what hooked her, even though her father was concerned about his lack of having a “serious” job. Darcy doesn’t consider dog walker, Uber drive, library aid, or seasonal help at The Christmas Store (the current job) as serious, either, but at least he seems happy. He was a bit jealous of her career at first, but, really, that hardly ever comes up anymore.
On this particular Saturday evening, Jason is playing racquetball in the city. The Night Tournament. This is the perfect time for Darcy to try out her new face cream. Jason uncharacteristically brought it home last week. A rep delivered free samples at the Christmas Store (she had wonderful skin, Jason said) and the other co-workers went gaga. Each bought a jar, so Jason hopped on the bandwagon, even though it was outrageously expensive.
Darcy looks at the label. Sileä. Luxuriously Smooth. There is text on the back. Slather on a generous amount and leave for 30 minutes before washing off, she reads.In small print under that, miracles are promised.
With face cream in place, she heads to the living room. She sips her glass of wine while rewatching (for the 12th time) Mamma Mia (the first one, of course). It’s her go-to movie when she needs just a little pick-me-up. Right in the middle of Tanya and Rosie singing Chiquitita to the Meryl Streep character, her phone timer dings. She grabs a washcloth from the linen closet, runs it under the bathroom faucet, and begins scrubbing. While washing, her skin stings, just enough to tell her that she has rubbed too hard.
Excited to see some changes, or at least cleansed and shiny skin, she is not prepared for what is there in the mirror. Her skin is dripping. Or oozing. Losing all semblance of skin on bone. Her face is melting. And underneath. What is it? Gelatinous layers, almost like a jellyfish or an embryo sac. She is only frozen for a moment. Quickly, she reaches for the bathroom vanity light, the one above the mirror, and there, in the brightness, is her real face. The one she knows all too well. The one with not two or three, but at least six new crows’ feet and at least as many smile lines.
When Jason gets home, she gives him a hello kiss. But she doesn’t pull away.
“I’m glad to see you, too, honey,” he says, backing up. “But I’m a stinky mess. Can you bring on the charm after my shower?”
Darcy wants to tell him everything. The cream, the mirror, the new face lines. In the bedroom, she turns the light dimmer all the way to high. When Jason comes in from the shower, he winces. “OK, that’s not the mood lighting I was expecting.”
“Will you just please look?”
“Okaaaaaay. Your face. Let’s see.”
“Does it look different to you?” Darcy steps closer and turns her face toward the light.
“Just as pretty as the day I met you. Maybe even…”
“Jason! I’m not fishing for compliments. Look at me.”
“OK. OK. I see you.”
Jason takes her chin and slowly moves her head from side to side. “You want me to be honest, right?”
“Well, Darcy, honey, there are some new wrinkles.”
“Some?” Darcy is near tears. “Some? How many?”
“Oh geez. I really don’t know. I mean, I’ve never counted.”
Now Darcy is crying. Jason gives her a hug as she sobs. She slides onto the bed.
“It’s just . . .” says Darcy, trying to stop the shaking in her voice. “It’s just that they seem to be coming in fast and furiously. New ones each day.”
Jason moves to his dresser to grab a t-shirt. With his head inside the fabric his voice is muffled. “Atswatsteycaaamimmleay.”
Jason’s head pops through the head hole. “That’s what they call middle age. I think you’re there.”
Darcy responds with something close to a sputter.
“What about your Mom? Did she age prematurely?”
Darcy wails. “Now I’m aging prematurely.”
“No. No, honey. I didn’t mean that. I was wondering, you know, about your genes.”
“When my mother passed at 40, I was in junior high. I never really noticed if she had wrinkles or drooping eyelids or anything.”
Jason turns down the sheets on Darcy’s side of the bed. “Here, sweetie. The best thing for anti-aging that I know of is sleep.” He pats the bed. She climbs in, but it’s a long time before she falls asleep.
Sunday, Darcy is groggy all day. She doesn’t feel right. When she takes her temp, it’s 101. Jason plies her with tea and orange juice.
After bringing her a cup of hot lemon water, Jason says, “And now, I’ll make you soup.”
As he disappears to the kitchen, she calls after him. “Maybe we can take a break on the liquids. I’m drowning here.” Stumbling to the bathroom, she is surprised to find Jason leaning against the counter, her face cream in his hands. The lid is off. “Going to put some on?”
Jason replaces the lid quickly. “No, you wouldn’t want to waste a drop on my leathery skin. But it doesn’t look like you’ve used any of it.”
Darcy pushes past him to the toilet. “Well, don’t think I’m ungrateful. Cold shakes and hot sweats haven’t exactly put me in the mood for my beauty routine.”
“The cream. You don’t like it.”
“What? Jason, I do. It was a really thoughtful gift.
“Then use it.” She barely catches the jar when he throws it at her.
“Hey,” she says, but he is gone.
She stays home from work on Monday. Jason heads out early to fend off the Christmas rush at The Christmas Store. He takes the train into the city and calls her when he gets off at his stop.
“So, you know what I was thinking might cheer you up. The face cream.”
“Really? We’re still . . . ?”
“It’s supposed to work. One time just won’t do it. It needs to be a consistent practice.”
Darcy agrees, at first just to stop him from going on. She is almost too tired to go through the effort. Finally, she heads to the bathroom and pulls out the jar. She “slathers” on a liberal amount and is surprised to find herself 30 minutes later on the bathroom floor, leaning against the toilet. “This is odd,” she says to no one.
She is almost afraid to look in the mirror but chides herself for being silly. There is bright daylight streaming in through the window of this sunny December day. That was just a weird hallucination the other night. Chalk it up to being tired.
Still, even with a pep talk, Darcy remains sitting on the bathroom floor. She wants there to be a miracle in her mirror, but she is afraid of something worse. After a few moments, she still hasn’t moved. She looks down at her jean shirt. Along the front there are dark stains. Water? Mucous? Blood? She reaches up slowly to feel her face . . . and there is only bone.
“Darcy. Darcy, wake up.”
Darcy hears Jason’s voice, but she has trouble opening her eyes.
“Darcy, there you are. Yes, open your eyes.”
And that’s when she starts screaming. As if someone else is screaming. She finds herself in Jason’s lap, his arms circling her, his words calm and comforting. Finally, the screams lessen. As if someone else was screaming. They stop as unexpectedly as they started. Darcy takes the deep breath he is asking for.
“That’s it. Good girl. Yes, breathe. Slow breaths. Slower. That’s it. Now tell me what happened.”
Darcy can’t remember, but she just knows something awful happened. Why is she on the bathroom floor? She has no answer. Jason leaves her to take a look around the apartment. A few minutes later he returns. “There’s no sign of forced entry. Everything looks as it always does.”
Darcy tries to stand. She’s shaky. Her legs of rubber collapse beneath her.
Jason offers support as he leads her to the bed. “I think it was the fever,” he says. “Sometimes, fevers can give us bad dreams.”
“That has to be it,” says Darcy weakly. Later, when he brings her chicken soup, she watches gelatin float on the top and has to turn away.
A week has passed and Darcy feels much better. She and Jason are both convinced she had a nasty virus. She’s not 100% yet, but she returns to work. Darcy didn’t get on the partner path by showing weakness. She brings that confidence home. She even strides into the bathroom with determination. It is the mirror, though, that she avoids. Not forever, she tells herself. Just until the virus is completely gone.
It’s Saturday, and Jason is getting ready for racquetball. He wasn’t going to go, but Darcy has convinced him she will be fine.
“No dinner?” she says as he takes a protein bar from the cabinet.
“Nah. That late lunch will hold me.”
Darcy catches him in the hall. “Not so fast, Mister.” She spins him towards her and gives him a very long, sensual kiss, complete with tongue and lip bite.
He hugs her more tightly. “I knew I should stay.”
“No, go. I’ll be here when you get back, even more relaxed.”
“You got the usual planned?”
“If by that you mean my ritualistic movie and a glass of wine, why yes!”
“And . . .”
Darcy runs her fingers through his hair. “And what?”
“And your beauty treatment?”
“Oh, yeah, well, maybe . . .”
“What do you mean, maybe?” Jason drops his sports bag at his feet, both hands raising in agitation. “You complain about your aging, I bring you a solution, you use it twice and stop. I’m sure I can’t return it. And the cost? Do you know it was the same amount as one of my pay checques?”
“Oh, I didn’t —”
“No, you didn’t. I should have had you buy it. With your bigshot lawyer money.”
“My . . . what? Did you say bigshot? I hardly think —”
“This is just one more time you hold your elevated position over me.”
“My what? I do what?” Darcy backs up into the wall. “Did you even hear yourself? What you just said?”
Jason leans on the opposite wall and puts his face in his hands. “So . . . sorry,” he mumbles. “I didn’t mean. I’m so sorry.”
Darcy reaches out her hand. “Hey.”
He looks up. “Hey.”
“Sweetie. The Christmas Store is temporary. I know you will find the thing you want to do. Or work you really love. Let’s be patient together.”
Jason nods. He gives her a squeeze, grabs his bag, and is out the door.
Darcy is on the couch. She has finished one glass of wine. Sitting. Thinking. She pours another. Just as she starts the movie, her friend Tiana calls. Words fly excitedly through the speaker, not one of them understandable. Darcy finally gets her to slow down.
“Sileä,” Tiana says breathlessly. “A face cream imported from Finland.” She speeds up again, saying something about how it has transformed her blemishes and wrinkles, she’s like a whole different person, but Darcy stops her.
“You’re kidding,” says Darcy. “I have that cream. Jason got it for me last week.”
“No way! Do you love it?”
“Actually, it kind of . . . well . . . it hurts my skin.”
“Oh, I know what you’re saying. You have to get past that initial sensitivity. It wasn’t until the third time. Then, it’s the fountain of youth.”
“Huh.” Darcy sees the cream on the bathroom counter from where she sits in the living room. After she hangs up, she marches to the bathroom. “OK, Sileä, one more try.” What did Tiana say? Third times a charm.
On goes the cream. Thirty minutes of Mamma Mia passes easily. Darcy is humming as she heads toward the bathroom. Whatever nightmare her mind had cooked up is surely gone.
Straight to the sink. Wash, wash, wash. For a brief moment, she feels a hiccup in her chest, like her heart has skipped a beat, but then with anticipation for the miracle turn, she looks straight into the mirror.
The face there is not hers. Frozen into a contorted position, this is a face of bones and pus and blood. There is a sound like galoshes walking in muck and she realizes it is her temples caving in. Buried deep in the sludge of this face are two eyes. Whose eyes are those? They are not hers. But they are staring at her, boring deep into her. It’s as if the eyes have claws and are pulling her, raking her, forcing her towards the mirror.
The next thing she hears is Jason coming in the door. She tries to say his name. “Jssshhhhnn.” She tries to get up, but it is as if she no longer has bones in her legs, or anywhere in her body. She feels as if she is struggling against mounds of something thick, like mud and mortar.
The pain in her head is immense. If only she can keep her eyes open long enough to focus. There in the doorway, she makes out a fleeting image of Jason. She wills her eyes to open one more time. The last thing she will ever see, swimming there in the doorway, is his smile.
Ann Keeling holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She was editor-in-chief of the Pitkin Review and is a fiction/poetry reader for Wild Roof Journal. Her work has been published in such journals as Jellyfish Review, Lucky Jefferson, The Disappointed Housewife, defunct magazine, 101 words, and was short-listed for the 2022 Force Majeure flash contest. She lives in Morro Bay, California with her husband and dog — and appreciates every single visit from her grown son. Find her on Instagram: @ann.keeling.writes.