It started after the car accident, or rather “the collision”, as her father called it. Because it couldn’t have been an accident. “Car wrecks didn’t just happen”, he was fond of saying, “Someone had to have caused it.” But in Emma’s case, she couldn’t find a way to blame herself, nor could she blame the other driver. Best she could do was point to God, that is if you could blame God for bad weather. That night her wipers had struggled mightily to keep up with the downpour, and the wet road had danced with dizzying reflections of headlights and taillights. Emma couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, but later was told that a lane change went wrong in an off-ramp loop. The end result was Emma’s car in a ditch on the side of the road.
Everything that happened in the aftermath could be attributed to the moment when her head had hit the glass. Not the front windshield glass, though. The airbag and seatbelt protected her from that fate. It was driver’s side window that ultimately got in the way of her skull.
We’re all just one head injury away from being someone else.
She couldn’t remember where she first heard that, or who from, or even if that’s how the sentence went. Regardless, it was true. A head injury changes you, and as Emma soon would find out, the world around you as well. They had video of her in the hospital, shortly after. She sounded fine at first, but if you watched long enough, she seemed to loop over and over in a repeating cycle that lasted about ten minutes.
She would ask, “What happened?”
They would provide a summary of events.
She would respond, “An accident? What happened to my car?”
Then they would tell her, “I’m sorry, hon, your car is totaled.”
She would respond again, “Oh no, I loved that car.”
They would nod, and she would continue, “It was the first car-“
And then they would finish the sentence for her because they had had the same exact conversation with her ten times already.
Emma snapped out of that particular loop in a matter of hours. “Nothing to worry about”, the neurologist said. “Repetition can be a normal response after a head injury. We’ll keep an eye on it.” But in the weeks as she recovered, she felt trapped in a different kind of loop. Every day was the same. Wake up in the hospital, fall asleep in the hospital. Rinse and repeat.
Emma finally was allowed to leave, with the plan to stay at her parents’ home just for a few weeks. She felt okay. Maybe not happy, exactly, but relieved to be breaking out of the day-in, day-out hospital loop. Even the first time she saw the reflection, it didn’t bother her. At least not too much. With a head injury, she was told to “expect the unexpected”.
When she first tried to describe it, though, no one understood. Everyone thought she was simply not recognizing herself. True, Emma’s appearance had changed somewhat since the accident- or rather “collision”. The month in the hospital left her skin pale and her usually tidy strawberry blonde hair in need of a cut and style. And yes, the dark circles under her eyes made her look older. But she knew who she was.
Emma tried to tell them that. The problem wasn’t her own face, it was that she was seeing someone else’s, someone clearly not her. In fact, the first time it happened, she saw a young man- a teenaged Hispanic male. Definitely not Emma. Two days later, yet another face appeared in the mirror. Female this time, but older with graying blonde hair, maybe late fifties. Again, definitely not Emma.
Emma’s therapist concurred with her psychiatrist. It was all in her head, although they said it in a more professional way. Emma agreed. What else could it be? Medications were adjusted and prescriptions were filled, but that didn’t stop it from happening. And so, when she moved from her parents’ house back into her own apartment, she remedied the situation on her own by covering all the mirrors with sheets. When out, she simply wouldn’t look in anything that could possibly offer a reflection. Not in restrooms, not in storefront glass, not anywhere. Emma became an expert at averting her eyes. Expect, of course, when she couldn’t.
It was her father who insisted that she drive again, and because she loved him, she acquiesced. He promised to help her “regain her confidence behind the wheel”. For the first time in months, on a sun-soaked morning, she found herself fretting in the driver’s seat of her dad’s prized Cadillac, carefully trying to back out of the driveway.
To her great relief, she quickly realized that the mirrors wouldn’t be a problem. The car had a camera in the back, and a screen on the dash. She didn’t need the rearview mirror at all, and the side mirrors showed only the sides of the car, not her face or anyone else’s. She navigated the Cadillac to the local grocery store and parked in the back of the lot. She smiled, proud of herself and looked to her dad, who at some point during the drive had donned a pair of aviator sunglasses. In each darkened lens, Emma saw a face other than her own, but the reflection this time wasn’t of a stranger.
Her aunt died later that day. Sad, yes, but not completely unexpected. Aunt Leida had been in hospice, after all. But now Emma knew what it meant when she saw someone other than herself in reflections. She talked to her therapist and her psychiatrist about it. “It’s the head injury, they told her, “expect the unexpected”. Medications were adjusted and prescriptions were filled.
After the driving incident, Emma mostly stayed in her apartment. She overheard her neighbors talking about her- about how sad it was for a healthy young woman to be on disability. She imagined them saying that it was all in her head too. And they were probably right. Emma didn’t mind not leaving the apartment. She had her groceries delivered and paid her bills online. No need to go outside. And inside, she didn’t need to look in any mirror. She thought about hiring someone to come take them away altogether.
Then, one quiet night, a thought came to her- that perhaps she should look, that perhaps she was supposed to see these people. So she started looking again. Just a peek here and there, done by lifting the corner of the sheet she had used to cover the medicine cabinet. Sometimes she saw herself, and sometimes she saw other people.
She sat in the dark for hours at a time with her mind going over and over the same thoughts. And then, finally, another new thought crept into the loop, one that said maybe she was supposed to find the people. Emma didn’t know why. Maybe to warn them? Or to prevent their deaths? But how?
She went back to the medicine cabinet and pushed the sheet a little farther off the mirror than usual. She looked carefully at the reflection. Now it was a woman, older than her with dark hair and dark eyes. “Who are you?” she asked. The woman in the mirror didn’t answer.
Days later, Emma left her apartment for the first time in weeks. At first it felt good, again like a cycle was being broken. She felt sad, too, thinking of all the things she had been missing out on while being stuck inside. She walked to a storefront that she had probably passed by a hundred times before the accident, or rather, “collision”. It was on the way to the Trader Joe’s, a store Emma used to go often back in the days when she still went out to buy groceries. The sign read, “Psychic Readings by Tara”, with a phone number underneath. Emma made a note on her phone and returned to her apartment.
Tara looked normal to Emma, although to be honest Emma had never been to a psychic before so she didn’t know what normal was for this particular profession. The room, too, wasn’t unusual. It was more like a small office but with new age décor and dimmer lights that one would find in a regular office.
“Emma, you said on the phone that you thought you were seeing spirits. And that this all started after a car accident. Do you want to tell me a little more about that?”
Now Emma thought Tara reminded her a bit of her therapist. Not a bad thing, but unexpected.
“Well,” Emma said, “I’m not sure they’re spirits. I think I am seeing people shortly before they die. And I think I should be helping them or something. Maybe I’m supposed to give them a warning. I just don’t know.”
The psychic nodded, and Emma felt some relief. This woman wasn’t going to suggest a new pill or talk about her head injury. There was instant buy-in. Yes, of course you’re seeing almost-dead people! Nothing weird about that at all.
Tara leaned back in her chair. “You are assuming that you are being given these visions because you need to do something about them. Is that why you’re here? To see what you are supposed to do?”
Emma nodded. “I think so. I don’t know.”
“Okay, let’s have a look.”
Tara unwrapped a set of cards from a silky white cloth. She gently shuffled and placed them in front of me. “Hold the cards, and think about your situation.”
Emma did as she asked.
“Now cut the deck into four piles from right to left.”
Again, Emma did as she asked.
“Let’s keep things simple, at least for now.” Tara stacked the cards back into one pile, and proceeded to place three cards in a row, face down. “We’ll look at past influences, the present situation, and the potential future.”
She turned the card on her left over to reveal a card with a chalice with water overflowing. A white dove hovered just above the chalice.
Tara took a moment to look at the card. “Note how the water is being displaced as the dove moves in. You lost something in the car accident, but you gained something too.” She paused and gave Emma a moment to look at the card.
“Now the present.” Tara turned over the card in the center. The image showed a woman on a bed, awakened, and clearly troubled, holding her face in her hands. On the wall behind her, there was an array of swords.
“Ah, well no surprises here,” Tara said.
Emma put her hand to the card. “What does it mean?”
“It represents the anxiety you’re feeling. You’re overwhelmed by what’s happening to you, but when this card appears, it’s a reminder that this worry will be temporary. You’re having sleepless nights, but they won’t last forever."
“I suppose that’s good.”
“Now, before I show you this last card, I want you to think of it as more as a possible outcome, and a source of advice. The future isn’t set in stone.”
Tara slowly turned the last card over. Emma instinctively backed away from the imagery as soon as she saw it.
“It’s not as bad as it looks. It appears you have a decision to make.”
Emma looked again at the card, this time more closely. It was titled The Devil. And it depicted what clearly looked like a devil, horns and all. Chained below the beast were a man and a woman, both naked.
“This card means I have to decide on my own what to do?”
Tara nodded. “It’s not the answer you were hoping for, I know, but take a moment to really look at the card. What do you see?”
Emma stared at the drawing. “I see chains, and bondage. Fire in the background. The people are trapped.”
“Yes, but look at their necks. The chains are loose, right? The man and the woman could slip away if they wanted to. Keep that in mind.”
Emma walked back home, trying to keep everything in mind, but finding herself lost in other thoughts. The psychic had said a lot more about the cards, but Emma was having a difficult time keeping it all straight. Once back inside, she sat on her couch for a long time. She watched the shadows grow on the walls, and then fade altogether. Then Emma stood up and walked around her house. One by one, she uncovered each of her mirrors.
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I enjoyed your story. The foreshadowing of this quote sets the scene for your story. "We’re all just one head injury away from being someone else. I wish your story would have started here. The first paragraph is more telling than showing. Once the read hits the second paragraph, the story comes to life. I love the hook at the end. Emma is making a choice and taking her life back. Can't wait to see what you write next.