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Short story: Visage

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******Visage is a 5000 word short story written from a conservative christian perspective and may be seen as offensive to some who are inclined toward abortion or radical feminism*****

 

Visage

By: Trevor C Botts

 

            It was eight o’clock at night when Gwen pulled into her drive way. Her headlights reflected off the rain soaked walkway contrasting it with the dark void created by the stormy night. Gwen had just gotten off work a half hour ago after another late night at her firm. But she never really cared about that, in fact for Gwen the late nights at work were just about all there was for her. She lived alone in a large suburban community and kept mostly to herself, she hadn’t had a boyfriend in nearly four months and after how the last relationship panned out she was hardly eager to start a new one. Gwen always appreciated time to herself, but after so long… the utter silence and the shiftless stagnant nature of her life began to wear on her. At first she had been able to convince herself that her lack of intimate friends and the distance she kept from her family ensured her independence; but as time moves on and pulls her along with it, she realizes more and more just how lonely her emancipation has made her. Gwen was an attractive women, but reclusive. She kept a cold distance between herself and the rest of the world, self-perpetuating her endless cycle of rejection and loneliness and paradoxically caused the hurt that her distant behavior was supposed to evade. This made it hard to maintain any substantial relationship. In an effort to dodge the harshness of her own reality Gwen began to throw herself into her work. To her, work was an escape, a chance to be depended on; a chance to be part of something bigger and hopefully make a real difference in this world. She had been working as a Discrimination Attorney for nearly five years, with her main area of expertise being women’s rights; a field in which she had been very active in ever since she was capable of understanding the issues surrounding it. She liked to think that she was changing the world one case at a time and slowly raising women up from the shadow of man. She considered herself an activist and a visionary, though to many others she came across as a radical and pompous. But she let nothing hinder her vision; whenever she was accused of being an extremist she would turn it around on them or simply respond, “Perhaps an extreme injustice deserves an extreme response.”
            Her way of viewing things made her rather hard to get along with at times and for the most part she knew it. In addition to her distant nature, her militant attitude was largely to blame for most of her relationship failures. This wasn’t something that she was proud of, but she always had problems trusting men; when Gwen was eight her father ran out on them, leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves. Her mother began working longer and longer hours at the local diner, but as the debt continued to pile up she turned to the bottle as her only source of comfort. Only eight years old, Gwen quickly came to realize that the only person she could truly depend on was herself. Starting with her father and carrying on into her personal life, all the men in her she encountered seemed to inevitably leave her, and a pattern started to emerge. Her distrust would lead to suspicion, suspicion led to accusations, accusations led to bickering, and bickering lead to her chasing away anyone who was willing to get close to her (or as she justified it, “Freeing herself from her chauvinistic oppressors.”) It was that pattern of distance, coldness, and rejection that lead to her endless string of failed relationships and her deep seeded sense of dread at the thought of returning to the large secluded building she called a home.

            Gwen slowly drew in a deep breathed and released it in a long lethargic sigh as she threw the car into park and removed the keys from the ignition. She just sat there in the car for a moment, listening to the sounds of the night, the pitter patter of rain on the metal roof, the lofty howl of the wind as it swept by in brief intermittent gusts, it was so surreal. She sat there in the dark, reflecting on her day, trying to stall the inevitable dash through the pelting rain to her lonesome, dreary house. She tapped on the dashboard and leaned her head against the steering wheel, then looking up and letting out another exasperated sigh she pulled her black angora dress coat up over her head, opened the door, and headed toward the house. Her high heels clapped against the cobble stone walk way as she walked as briskly as she dared toward the oversized domicile. Her porch lights casted long distorted shadows from the hedges and shone a distorted reflection of the lonely woman on the wet, uneven surface of the cobblestone walkway. The wind blew a slanting spurt of rain and Gwen picked up her pace. Moving too fast for her footwear on the wet textured surface of the stone, her heel snapped and brought her staggering to the ground. She caught herself with her left arm which was trickling a small stream of blood from a long but shallow scratch. She held herself there for a moment, looking at the her distorted likeness cast on the wet stone. The way it rippled and warped with the contours of the rock only added to the expression of sullen isolation that lingered on Gwen’s face. Colors on her face blurred together in a swirling mixture of light peach, brown, and red like a masterpiece of some abstract artist. There was no form but there was meaning in it, a sort of bleak sadness and anguish. The wind howled once more carrying with it another pelting burst of rain and awakening Gwen from her melancholy dream. She picked herself up and walked awkwardly up the walk way and into her house.
            Her home was grand by most standards. Large enough to comfortably house a large family the elegant Victorian style house modeled after works by Frank Furness featured three baths, four bedrooms, and a vast dining room which connect to the kitchen, a living room with a hearth which led into a rather warm and inviting parlor, the parlor hosted two curved stairwells that led up to the second floor where  a long hallway connected the bedrooms, two of the baths, and at the far end a spacious personal study with walls lined top to bottom with books and a large bay window overlooking a small stream that ran through a tranquil patch of woods behind the secluded suburban house. The house itself was a work of art, large and impressive both inside and out, yet possessing a sort of rustic welcoming nostalgia. In fact that was one of the reasons Gwen hated it so much. Not only was its size a steady reminder of her horrible failures at romance and the steady ticking of her biological clock; but in many regards the house served as her exact antithesis. The mirthful and welcoming appearance of the house was a perfect contrast to its owner’s isolation and coldness. It hadn’t always been so abrasive to Gwen, when she had first bought it she was in a stable one year relationship. The house was an emblem of there hope for a bright future together. It was a place to settle down and start a family together. But the meaning of the house changed along with Gwen. That relationship took its toll on her, when it ended she was devastated. Then again it was to be expected, at that point the relationship had gone on for more than two years, longer than anything Gwen had ever sustained before. But he wanted her to be his. Sure he gave some story about how he wanted to be hers too, how they should be equals each belonging to each other. But Gwen knew such things were mere fantasy. She knew that what he really meant was that she was his. She wasn’t about to let anyone claim possession of her, not then, not ever. She learned the hard way not to trust anyone, her childhood tempered her, it made her strong and well versed in the ways of the world. She wasn’t about to let someone gain control over her. And so the cycle that Gwen had come to know all too well began again. They began to fight. Little things at first, but the more they bickered the clearer it became to her that he was trying to control the relationship, his objections and unwillingness to just go along with her confirmed in her mind that he was trying to imprison her. As the fighting increased in frequency it increased in intensity, and galvanized Gwen’s convictions of independence and self-reliance. Gwen distanced herself from him, living as if a stranger in her own home. The fighting stopped. He tried to talk to her but she refused to acknowledge him, for her it was already over, broken beyond repair. He wanted someone he could control, someone to lead, and she was never going to be that person. Her life was her own and no one else’s, she wasn’t about to give up her independence to adopt the identity some man was trying to force upon her.  She withdrew, became irresponsive to him, and shortly latter, he left. Now that house that was once a beacon of the bright future she hoped to have, changed into a bitter reminder of her misery and solitude.

            Gwen kicked off her broken shoes and tossed her coat on the rack before walking over to the kitchen. She moved heavily over to the corner cupboard and leaned against the counter as she stretched out her short but slender body to grasp a can of Campbell’s Soup from the back. She let out a deep yawn as she trudged over to the can opener. She punctured the can and placed it under the electric opener and then walked over to the kitchen table to retrieve the paper. As she stooped down to pick it up she heard a faint but shrill squealing, almost like the crying of an infant. She perked her head up and listened again, but the sound was persistent, a subtle but certain baby’s cry. She let the paper drop fluttering down to the hardwood floor as she spun around to see where the sound was coming from. But there was nothing else in the room, just her alone as was so often the case. She straightened up and listened. The sound was still there, slowly she began to head towards the sound, it became louder and louder with each step, until suddenly it was right beside her. She slowly turned her head to the right and gave a chuckle of relief as she say the rusty gears of the can opener turning and turning. She unplugged the machine and the noise subsided. She laughed to herself at the thought of being rattled by something as trite as a rusty can opener, but ever since her procedure she had been rather on edge, she chalked the incident up to her medications gathered up the newspaper and carried on with her sumptuous meal of microwaved soup and stale saltines. She read the paper as she slowly slurped at her soup. Gwen had always found the paper to volley between depressing and infuriating, but it was such a part of her routine that she couldn’t imagine not reading it. She finished up her meal and then trudged upstairs to prepare for bed. She was quite tired despite the fact that it was only going on nine o’clock. Since her procedure she had often felt a heavy emotional weariness which she also attributed that to the new medications she was prescribed. She walked into the bathroom and brushed her teeth, she looked in the mirror for any blemishes that threatened her lily white complexion, and finding none she wandered over to her bedroom to complete her nightly rituals.

            Of all the rooms in the house the master bedroom was particularly insufferable in Gwen’s sight. It was large and spacious, painted in a deep burgundy that added warmth to the room as well as a certain element of romance. A California King sat in the middle of the room, a bed far too large to be filled by just one person and it served to remind Gwen all the more of her loneliness. She ignored the bed and shuffled across the plush carpet of the bedroom floor over to her vanity. Her vanity sat atop a rustic white dresser painted in a manner that gave it the appearance of having been weathered, with strips of silvery grey that stood out from the canvas white and catches the light from above the mirror. She picked up her sterling brush and sat at her cushioned chair. She turned the brush over in her hands a few times then she gathered her hair over to the right shoulder and began to run the brush through her long, glimmering, auburn hair. This was the one thing she found pleasure in, it seemed that every stroke of the brush whisked away the worries of her life. As a child she remembered sitting in front of a mirror for hours just brushing her hair, and if she had the time or the energy she could still likely spend the better part of an hour just brushing her hair.

            Once she was done she sat up strait and leaned forward staring into the mirror. She looked into the shimmering baby blue eyes of the visage before her, and the image gazed back. Gwen often did this, she took pride in her beauty, her slender and supple form, her flowing brown hair that cascaded down her neck coming to rest in subtle curls just below her shoulders, her rose red lips which stood out in vibrant contrast to her flawless lily white complexion, and delicate facial features; she reveled in every aspect of her breathtaking appearance, but there was always something about her eyes. Looking into her own eyes she felt as though she could see past all of the outer workings and fine features, and see into the inner her. Past the emotional facades she puts off for those at work and the hostile affronts she employs to distance lovers. In her own eyes she felt as though she might hope to catch a glance of who she truly was beneath the hurt and the sorrow that she felt and the coldness that she showed the world. She searched her eyes every night with hopes of finding that inner self, only to find nothing but the bitter emptiness that she had always known.

            But not this night… This night there was something about the visage in the mirror. Something that Gwen had never seen before. She leaned back in the chair and blinked several times thinking it must have been some kind of illusion, a trick of her mind. However the image did not change. Gwen leaned forward and examined the mirror closely, knowing that what she saw could not be, but sure enough the image was weeping. Her eyes were puffy and red and tears streamed down her delicate rosy cheeks. Feeling a combination of shock and intrigue Gwen could do little more than stare at the figure in the mirror. Gwen saw in that woman something she had never been known to have, vulnerability. Gwen say in that image a sense of hurt the she had never allowed herself to experience, a hurt extending beyond the physical and emotional and reaching inward toward her very soul.
            Gwen resituated herself in her chair and produced a delicate smile. She had finally caught a glimpse of who she truly was in that mirror, and she felt for the first time the joy of openness. Gwen chuckled a faint and dainty laugh and slowly reached up and brushed her cheek to wipe the tears from her face. Gwen’s eyes widen as she pulls her hand back from her face. Her heart rate quickens and the placid bliss of vulnerability fled from her mind and body, as she came to realize the unsettling fact that her hand was bone dry.

            Gwen looked at her dry hand turning it over in front of her trying in vain to catch some glimmer of water in the light. She looked at her hand and then back up at the woman weeping in the mirror. Startled, Gwen leapt from her seat and staggered backwards coming to rest on the floor leaned up against the baseboard of her bed. Still keeping close watch over her reflection in the mirror she rose back up to her feet. Much to her astonishment the woman crying in the mirror did not move. Gwen herself had bolted toward the bed, fallen, and gathered herself again; but the image stayed fixed. Its watery red eyes locked with Gwen’s in an endless gaze. Gwen reached up and rubbed her eyes, but the image remained unchanged.

            “This is impossible” Gwen said to herself

             “This kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life…. But yet, it is… how is this happening? Have I completely lost it? This can’t really be happening…. I know… it’s the meds, it has to be the meds. Between the medications and the stress, I’m just having some sort of bad trip. That’s all there is to it, a bad hallucination….” She said out loud to herself gaining confidence as she came to her reassuring conclusion.

            “Is that what I am to you anymore… a figment of your diseased mind? After so long searching for me night after night in your mirror, I finally appear and you deny me? It’s as to be expected… after all Gwen you’ve been denying me your whole life.” The visage called out from the mirror.

            Gwen’s eyes widened and face cringed with a combination of terror and bewilderment, but she didn’t know how to react to the situation. Convinced that she had lost control of her senses she regained herself, closed her eyes and took three steps toward the vanity. With each slow and careful step she told herself “when I open my eyes it’ll be gone.” Upon her final step she lingered a few seconds; building up her confidence, convincing herself that mind over matter is all she needed, a calm, focused, rational mind would prevail and she’d find herself seeing noting but her own face. But as she opened her eyes the same teary eyed woman appeared remained the mirror. Gwen leaned backward in surprise and her mouth gaped open, she wanted to do something, anything, but she simply didn’t know how to react. The image wasn’t frightening insomuch as it was just outright unnatural. Have no idea what else she could do, and letting her intrigue override her sense of self-preservation, Gwen took up her seat at the vanity once more and gazed back into the mirror.

            The auburn hair, the lush red lips, the lily white skin, hands seemingly folded outside the view of the mirror… the image was like her in every way, until she got to the eyes. It wasn’t just the tears that made her stand out, but there was just something inherently different about them. Sure they were the same color, but looking into them Gwen saw hurt, regret, and weakness, that she had never allowed herself to show. But moreover she saw in those eyes a sense of purposeful resolve, an essence of meaning and ambition that was alien to her. It was an odd combination of will and despair, frailty and fortitude. Gwen had never seen anything like it, much less could she identify it in herself.

            “Wh-what are you?” Gwen asked timidly

            “I’m you Gwen. Or at least I was, you’ve ignored me for so long that you’ve forgotten who I am. I am not who you are Gwen, but rather who you should be. I was once in the forefront of your mind Gwen, but now I find myself staring into the eyes of a stranger.” The visage replied gently

            “Why do you appear now?” Gwen asked with a frantic sternness

            “I appeared because you were looking. You were looking for yourself. You were looking for a way to fill the void that you have created in your life under the guise of strength. I appeared because you were looking for me.
            You made yourself an empty shell. You gave up on living a good life, a purposeful life in favor of strength and some warped sense of righteous indignation. You are a husk, Gwen, a mere statue of a woman. You look real and have convinced yourself that you are, but you have no purpose, no meaning, you’re as cold and hard as the marble from which you were crafted, you are nothing more than the likeness of a person.
             You claim to be empowered but all you do is chase people away so that you won’t get hurt. You are so far gone that now even the reflection you see in the mirror is of more substance than you.” The woman replied.

            “Who are you to call me a husk? You’re not real! You’re noting more than a picture of me! I have meaning, I have reason, haven’t I fought inequity? Haven’t I stood up for the good of the people? Haven’t I given voice to the innocent? Who are you to convict me? You’re only a reflection, a replica of the true form. Yet you act so high and mighty! What have I done that my conscious rebels against me?” Gwen screamed at the mirror.

            “listen.” The image said.

            Gwen listened but heard only the howl of the wind and the scraping of branches. “Listen to what there’s nothing but the wind!” She said forcefully

            “Can’t you hear it? Listen closer Gwen. I know you can hear it.” The visage replied

            Gwen sat quietly and listened for a second. The distant howl of the wind was like a soft whining that gained force with every gust, like the crying of an infant. As this dawned on Gwen suddenly that became all she could hear. The wind was no longer wind but the shrill palpitating wails of an infant. It burrowed into Gwen’s head, reverberating around in her skull. She fell to the ground, clamping her hands over her ears and clenching her eyes shut. But it didn’t stop the crying; in fact it only grew louder than before. Gwen screamed and writhed in agony as a slight trickle of blood seeped through her fingers from out her ears. Then silence, the wind ceased, and the wails faded into the stillness of the night. Gwen slowly opened her eyes and cautiously removed her wet, sticky hands from over her ears. She rose to her knees and looked around, taking in her surroundings, as if a familiar setting verified the reality of what was happening. Then she rose to her feet and returned her gaze to the mirror.

            The Gwen in the mirror had changed again. Her hands were no longer folded out of view but now drawn up beneath her shoulders with something gingerly cradled in her arms. She was looking down at it with tears still pooling in her eyes. She delicately rocked the bundle of cloth ever and softly hummed a gentle lullaby. Gwen looked at the cloth and noticed it began changing color. A deep shade of crimson red had begun to slowly seeping through the plush white cloth. Then the woman in the mirror looked up at Gwen.

            “You asked me what you had done…. Now tell me what you see?” The woman replied softly as she unraveled the cloth.

            Gwen looked on in horror as the last layer of cloth was pulled away. In the woman’s arms were the bloody mutilated remains of an infant. It was mangled almost beyond recognition little more than a minced pile of raw meat and organs. Blood soaked the cloth that it was wrapped in and tiny shoots of cartilage and bone protruded from the congealing dark red mass. But yet some features were recognizable, a small open hand extended out from the tattered heap of flesh reaching toward Gwen as if grasping in vain for its mother, and about two thirds of a little skull remained showing a shredded ear and part of a torn nose, with one large dark eye looking inquisitively at Gwen through the mirror.

            Gwen lunges away from the mirror toppling her chair in the process. She bursts through the bedroom door and bolts out into the hall. She darts down the hallway as fast as her legs can carry her, in a desperate effort to put as much distance between herself and the ghastly visage in mirror as she possibly can. But it’s of no use.  Every picture frame, every window, every mirror she passes in the hall shows the horrible visage of her and her tattered baby both looking at her with judgment and disgust.

            “Is this how you fight inequity?” asks the image in one picture frame

            “Is this how you stand up for what’s right?” asks the image in another frame

            “Is this how you give voice to the innocent?” The visage inquires from a window

            Gwen ran in a mad dash into the study and bolted the door behind her. Her heart pounding as if trying to burst from her chest and her breathing reduced to a labored wheeze she runs over to her desk picks up the phone, she dials 9-1-1 and lifts the phone to her ear. It begins to ring, then it cuts out all is quiet for a brief second, then the hellish, deafening cries of her baby come blaring through the phone. So shrill and sudden is the sudden burst of cries that it causes a fresh stream of blood to come cascading out of her right ear. She drops the phone and backs away from her desk. As she begins to back up towards the bolted door, a loub pounding begins and the Door starts to rattle and quake feverishly in its frame. She twists around and falls to the ground. Scuffling away from the door she comes to rest at the far side of the room where she cups her hands over her ears and curls up in a ball slowly rocking back and forth.

            “Make it stop….” She cries, at first in a soft lofty whisper to herself. But as the pounding and shaking persists her whisper evolves into a desperate shouting at the top of her lungs, and she begins weeping openly. Then all went silent.

            “I tried to make it stop Gwen.” Her voice calls softly at first
            “I was always there. No matter how hard you fought me, no matter how long you ignored and neglected me. I was there, screaming from inside of you while you destroyed yourself. I am you conscious, I am your hope and your despair, I am your weakness and your true strength. I tried to ‘make it stop’ Gwen, I tried with all that I am, but you wouldn’t listen. You buried me down deep inside so that you do gratify yourself with meaningless relationships, with trivial lawsuits, with false ambition for some trite and contrived sense of self-worth and independence. You even went so far as to kill our baby! And you try to justify it to us by claiming it as the right of an emancipated and empowered woman! I watched in horror as you went through life, I fought you every step of the way, but you suppressed the truth I offered you! Now I will be heard! You can ignore me no longer! Gwen, it is not I who convicts you, but rather you have convicted yourself!
             Look at the child I hold in my hands, this was to be our baby. He would’ve had hopes and dreams, he would’ve had a life of his own, but you took that from him. And not only from him but from us, we would’ve grown together, we would’ve learned how to love, how to be happy, we would’ve had meaning! But no you rejected it! You turned away true happiness, and an actual purpose… for what? Your own personal convenience? It’s time you acknowledge what you’ve done Gwen. It’s time you face your conscious!” The image cries out appearing in each of the twelve panels of the bay window directly above Gwen.

            Gwen looks up at the images as it speaks and she shakes her head violently from side to side screaming at the top of her lungs “No… No… No” and clamping her hands over her ears. But it does no good, as the words reverberate within the confines of her mind. She clamps her eyes shut and begins to sob loudly and shake all over. Then she stops. She opens her eyes. She gazes at the twelve visages before her with a fiery look of hate and despair. She rises to her feet and glares at them in resentment. Then rushing forward she screams at the top of her lungs a primal guttural cry as she lunges at the figure in the bay window and comes crashing through center six panes, slitting her throat on the shattered glass and falling in a twisted heap to the cold wet ground below. There she lay dying in a tangled heap at the base of the stream, blood spurting out of her long dainty neck, her once beautiful face tattered and studded with shimmering shards that serve as mementos of her final act of independence, her blue eyes dilated and widened fixed on the stream before her. In her last moments of consciousness, she stares steadily into the stream, unable to move, unable to breathe. She gazes at the visage in the water. Staring back at her is what she had made of her true self, finally showing itself to her as the sorrowful, hopeless, decrepit creature she had truly become.

 

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