A grieving mother wakes up to find all traces of her lost son have been erased as if he had never existed. Only in the hallway mirror is she able to see a glimpse of the reality she remembers having lived—the reality she wants back.
Content warning for fictional depictions of childhood death and parental grief.
Andrew is already gone when Emma wakes, the bed beside her empty. She sits up slowly. She feels disoriented, as if something has shifted while she was sleeping, the contours of the room somehow too sharp, too vivid. The space dim, the air cold against her skin.
Reaching for the remote, she presses the button to open the blind; as it rises, she lifts a hand to shield her eyes. The light that spills in is pale. Overnight the weather has changed, summer heat replaced by cloud and hurrying wind. Winter light limns the branches of the trees in the neighbour’s garden, the sky behind them bruised.
She sits up and pulls on the dressing gown that lies beside the bed, confused to find it is her winter robe, its thick cotton heavy against her skin. Something is wrong, although she does not know what.
Out in the hall she ghosts towards the kitchen. The air is cold, her breath steaming in front of her face. Yet how is that possible? Only a week or two before she was swimming, stroking down through the crystalline water off Bondi. Has she made some kind of a mistake? Was that morning not days ago, but weeks, months? Has she imagined it entirely? Where the hall meets the entry area she quickens her step, willing herself not to glance sideways, not to look through the open door into Lukas’s room. Yet as she reaches the end of the hall she stops, uncomprehending. Lukas’s door is not there. Instead, where it should be there is nothing but blank wall, upon which hangs a framed picture she does not recognise.
She lurches back, her legs trembling beneath her, and stares around wildly, as if the door might have moved, or she might have misremembered. The feeling she had when she woke up, that sense of wrongness, has returned, and she feels dizzy, ill. Lifting a hand to her mouth, she lets out a choking sound, one half sob, one half terror.
For several seconds she cannot move. Then she slowly extends a hand towards the wall where the door should be. At the last moment she almost recoils, terrified it will possess some kind of charge, an electricity that will repel her touch, but when her hand makes contact it simply feels cool, the paint smooth beneath her fingers.
With a whimper she places her other hand on the wall, and slides it up and down, slowly at first, then faster, searching for some bump or declivity that might offer evidence of a join or repair. But there is nothing. Wrenching herself away, she closes her eyes and wills the world to be as it was, but when she opens them again nothing has changed: the wall is still there, the door still missing. She lets out a cry and stumbles away towards the kitchen, searching for her phone.
Andrew answers almost immediately. ‘Em? Is everything okay?’
‘Where is it?’ she stammers. ‘Is this some kind of trick?’
‘Slow down! I don’t understand.’
She grips the phone tighter, willing herself not to shout. ‘The door to Lukas’s room! What did you do to it?’
There is a moment’s silence. When Andrew speaks again, his voice is tired and wary. ‘Lukas? I don’t understand, Emma. Who’s Lukas?’
She lets out a moan and drops her phone onto the kitchen bench. Andrew’s voice rises from it, tinny and distant, like the voice of a doll inside a house.
‘Emma? Em! What’s happening? Emma!’
She backs away, staring at her phone, ignoring Andrew’s increasingly frantic voice, then turns and staggers back through to the hall. There must be an explanation, a way of making sense of this. Stopping in front of the picture on the wall where the door should be, she searches it for some kind of sign that will help her understand. It is a photo of her and Andrew on their wedding day, smiling; blown up to portrait size they look awkward, alien, wax figures smiling in some distant past. She remembers the photo, but she has never seen it here before, and she is certain she would never have chosen to put it here. Grabbing the frame with both hands, she pulls it off the wall and drops it on the ground. Where it hung a ghostly outline is visible, as if the paint around it has faded. She laughs, a wild, broken sound. It is impossible. Placing her hand on the wall, she stares along it. She is terrible at gauging distance, but even she can see the wall is shorter than it was yesterday. How can that be? Moving quickly, she takes six paces back towards her and Andrew’s door, then races in to do the same on the other side. She counts four, then their wardrobe. Her head pounding, she backs away, then counts her paces again. It is the same. How is that possible? How can a room simply disappear? She runs back out to the hall, paces that again. ‘No,’ she says to herself, ‘no, no, no, no.’ Frantically she knocks on the wall, listening for the sound of some kind of cavity, but all she hears are the dull clicks of her knuckles on mortar and brick.
She is standing in front of the wall with her hand raised when the front door swings open, and Andrew bursts in. Seeing her, he hurries towards her and stops just behind her.
He places a tentative hand on her shoulder. ‘Emma?’ She jerks away, making a wild sound.
‘What’s going on?’
She turns and stares at him. He is dressed in a blue suit, his sandy hair brushed upwards in a perfect quiff.
‘Where is it?’ she hisses. ‘How did you do this?’
‘Do what? You’re not making sense.’
‘Lukas’s room. Where did it go?’
‘You said that on the phone. I don’t know a Lukas. And I don’t understand what you mean about his room being gone. Gone from where?’
‘From here!’ she screams, pointing at the wall.
Andrew takes a step back. ‘Please, Emma, you’re scaring me. Is this some kind of joke? Have you missed your meds?’
She stares at him. He looks just like himself. Too much like himself.
‘Don’t act like I’m crazy. I know what’s real. How did you do it? When did you do it?’ She covers her face with her hands and moans. ‘It doesn’t make any sense.’
Andrew raises his hands, whether to calm her or to protect himself she isn’t sure. ‘It’s okay. Whatever’s going on we can sort it out.’ Gingerly he reaches out for her. She flinches away, but as she does, she glimpses her reflection in the mirror behind her and freezes.
‘Em?’ Andrew says, his voice trembling. ‘What’s wrong?’
She opens her mouth to speak, but cannot find the words. Finally she lifts a hand and points towards the mirror.
‘Can’t you see it?’ she says, her voice trembling.
‘See what?’ Andrew asks.
She stares at him, and then back at the mirror. Her legs feel like they are about to give way beneath her. ‘Nothing,’ she says, forcing her voice not to shake. ‘It’s nothing.’
Andrew places a hand on her arm, waiting to see whether she flinches before drawing her towards himself.
‘It’s okay,’ he says. ‘Everything’s going to be alright.’
She does not resist, instead allowing herself to be folded inwards against the once-reassuring solidity of his body. But even as she lets her head rest on his chest she does not take her eyes off the mirror. For there, staring out at her, tanned in a summer dress, her head against Andrew’s chest, is a different her. And reflected in the mirror’s depthless surface behind that other her is the door to Lukas’s room.
Andrew guides her to one of the seats at the kitchen bench and makes her a cup of tea. He does not sit down, though; instead he hovers by the counter, his eyes darting surreptitiously to his phone and back to her.
‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘You don’t need to stay.’
He looks up, his blandly handsome face anxious. ‘I’ve got an open house in Simpson Street in ten minutes. That’s why I was able to get here so quickly.’
She nods, careful to keep her face calm. ‘You should go.’
‘I wouldn’t, except I’m working with Johanna.’ His voice trails off, the mere mention of the hyper-ambitious junior who recently joined his agency explanation enough.
‘Of course. I’m fine.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Absolutely. I was just a bit confused. I’m alright now.’
He takes a breath. ‘I think you need to go back to the doctor, talk to him about your meds. I can drive you if you make an appointment for this afternoon.’
She shakes her head, forcing herself to remain still. ‘I’ll do it. It’s fine.’
‘Are you sure?’
He stands, watching her. ‘Okay,’ he says at last. His phone still in his hand, he moves past her, pausing to press his lips to the top of her head. Emma feels herself stiffen at his touch, but he seems not to notice.
‘Promise you’ll call me if you need me,’ he says.
‘Of course,’ she says.
She sits staring out the window over the kitchen bench at the leaves moving against the wintry sky until she hears his car accelerate away down the street. Only then does she stand up and go back through to the entry area. The wall where Lukas’s door was is still blank and unbroken, with no sign an opening was ever there. Instead there is just a short stretch of wall, smooth and blemishless except for the faint outline where the picture hung. She wants to turn her head, to look in the mirror, but she knows she must not, although she is not sure whether she is more afraid the room will still be there or it will not, so instead she forces herself to concentrate on the wall, to take in every detail. It runs from the bedroom door to the entry area. Last night when she went to bed – if it was last night – it must have been four metres long. Yet now it is only a couple of metres, too small for another door, another room.
Each time she tries to focus on what is happening, her mind recoils. She knows that what has happened is impossible. Yet still she forces herself to go to the door of the bedroom and pace out the distance from the door to the wall and then again on the other side of the wall in the hall. They match.
She swallows and leans back on the door frame. She feels vertiginous, as if she might faint. None of this makes sense. Closing her eyes, she tries to think back to the night before, to try to anchor herself, but she cannot. The room was there then, wasn’t it? Although even as she frames the question, she understands how insane it sounds. If it wasn’t there then, how can it ever have been? Yet it was, she knows it. Her heart beating fast, she opens her eyes and moves towards the mirror. Stopping in front of it, she takes a breath. She sees her own face, staring back at her, but the version of her in the mirror is tanned, a dusting of freckles across her nose, her expression impossible to read. Lifting a hand, she sees her reflection do the same, the two of them moving in perfect synchrony despite the fact this other woman is not her and cannot be her.
Finally she allows herself to look past her reflection at the wall behind her. At first she thinks the door is gone, the idea making her stomach lurch, but as she moves her head, the edge of the door frame and a sliver of the open space of the room behind it come into view. Taking a breath, she moves closer to the glass and steps sideways, trying to see more, but all she can see is the white of the wall, the corner of the Moroccan rug Andrew said was too pale for a child’s room that she bought anyway, because it was thick and warm and went with the blonde wood of the bed. She takes a breath and turns in a sudden motion, as if she might catch the room, make the world inside the mirror conform with the world outside, but it will not; instead she feels herself growing nauseous, her brain rebelling as if against one of Escher’s drawings of impossible space. She lets out a desperate whimper and tries again, and then again and again, until at last she cannot stand it any longer, and sinks to the floor, sobbing.
It is almost seven before Andrew returns, his keys jangling in the lock. She is sitting in the kitchen in the darkness.
‘Em?’ Andrew calls uncertainly. ‘Are you there?’
She opens her mouth to speak but words do not come.
Andrew flicks on the light and jumps.
‘Jesus! Em! What are you doing sitting there like that? You scared the life out of me!’
She doesn’t reply. He looks around, as if worried there might be other unpleasant surprises in store.
‘It’s freezing in here. Didn’t you put the heating on?’
She shakes her head. ‘It’s January.’
‘What?’ he asks, staring at her.
‘It’s January. Summer. Or at least I thought it was.’
He hesitates, his face stricken. When he speaks again his voice is softer. ‘Oh, Em. It’s July.’
She stares at him, trying to work out whether he is lying, or whether he genuinely believes what he is saying. Is he that good an actor? She isn’t sure. For a second she feels like she glimpses something, a glimmer of understanding. It was summer, just yesterday. Yet the months in between seem to have disappeared, like most of today. The world is unreliable at a large scale, mirror sharp in the moment.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I know that. I just thought…’ She gestures hopelessly with one hand.
Andrew kneels beside her, his face level with her chest. ‘Is this about this morning?’
She looks down at him. The concern on his face so familiar and yet somehow not. As if she has only just seen him, or whoever has returned from work is not Andrew but an imposter, a simulacrum.
She shrugs, and he places a hand on her arm. ‘Did you go to the doctor?’
She flinches but then catches herself. After a moment she shakes her head.
Andrew looks past her and lets out a small sigh of frustration. ‘That’s okay,’ he says, closing his hand around her arm. ‘We can make an appointment for tomorrow.’ Finally he looks up. ‘Have you eaten?’
She shakes her head.
‘I’ll order something,’ he says.
He orders salad bowls from Clearfish, the sesame and soy sweet and salty on the shredded seaweed and edamame, with kingfish for him and tofu for her. As they eat, Emma watches him across the table. At first she thought this was some kind of cruel joke, a rehearsal for a reality show or some kind of viral video in the making. But the mirror has made her understand something else is going on. Is it possible this Andrew is not her Andrew, that he does not know, does not remember? Or – and this possibility worries her even more – is it her that is mistaken somehow, her that has imagined another life?
‘What is it?’ he asks when he is done. ‘You’ve barely touched your food.’
She looks down at her chopsticks on the bench. ‘I’m sorry. I’m not hungry.’ She lifts her eyes and stares at him. Andrew laughs, uncomfortably.
‘Are you sure you’re okay?’
‘Did you mean it?’ she asks, the words coming from her in a rush as she asks the question she told herself she would not ask. ‘That you don’t know who Lukas was?’
Andrew leans back in his chair and runs his hands through his hair. He suddenly looks very tired. ‘Not this again.’
She nods and stands up. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘Forget I asked.’
Later, in bed, she lies awake, listening to Andrew’s breath rise and fall. The quiet hums around her, a living thing. Finally she gets up, goes out to the hall. The air on her skin cold, her breath silvering the air in front of her face. In the hall the moonlight falls through the door, a pale rhomboid on the wall beneath the mirror. She touches the wall, then steps towards the mirror. She tries to slow her breathing to relax. Finally she lifts her eyes, and meets the gaze of her other self. She stares back at her, her eyes steady and unwavering. Is there a moment of recognition? A sense she also is somewhere she does not belong? Or is it only Em’s own fear she sees looking back at her, her own need to see the ghostly outline of the door in the mirror, to know it is there still?
In the weeks after Lukas died it was as if the world had divided. Not just between then and now, but between what was real and what was not. Although she did her best to keep going, she felt like a ghost in her own life.
It might have been better if she had not been so alone. In the last weeks of Lukas’s life Andrew had kept working, only appearing at the hospital in the evening for an hour or two. But on the Monday after the funeral she woke to find him dressed in a suit.
‘Call me if you need anything,’ he said, and kissed her.
That day she stayed in bed, ignoring her phone, staring at the television. Only when she heard Andrew outside did she get up, drag herself into the kitchen. The next day she was still in bed when he got home.
For a week or two her friends kept calling, wanting to know how she was. They were gentle, sympathetic, but she could hear the note of frustration in their voices sometimes. Why didn’t she get up? Why couldn’t she at least try? She spent longer and longer each day in bed. Her grief was like a stone, something that sat on her, that made the air thick and the world slow, as if she was moving through glass. And then, one day, she woke up, and realised it was six months since he had died. That day nobody rang, nor the next, nor the day after. She knew that should have bothered her, but instead it just confirmed something she had come to understand in those last weeks in the hospital: that she was alone, and always would be.
But then, two months ago, she had answered the door to find her friends Carrie and Trina outside. She stared at them in confusion, unable to speak, but then Andrew appeared behind her, his face firm, and somehow she understood that he had been expecting them.
‘You know we love you,’ Carrie said once they were in the living room. ‘So much, Em. And we know how hard it’s been.’
‘But you can’t go on like this,’ said Trina. ‘Andrew can’t go on like this.’ She looked across at Andrew. ‘Can you, Andrew?’
Emma glanced up to find Andrew staring at her. A moment or two passed and then he shook his head. ‘You need help, Em. More than I can give you.’
Andrew made an appointment with the doctor. Normally she saw Dr Shen, but she was away, so she saw a doctor she had not seen before, a gentle man with a lazy eye and a rich, Nigerian accent. He read her file and asked a few questions, and after a pause, said, ‘It’s not your fault. None of this is your fault.’
The doctor prescribed pills and referred her to a therapist. When the day arrived, Trina turned up to drive her, no doubt intuiting Emma would not have gone otherwise. ‘He’s good,’ she told her in the car. ‘Peter and I saw him a couple of years ago, when things weren’t so great. I think he really helped.’
Emma stared at her friend. How did she not know Trina and Peter had been in counselling? What else had Trina not told her?
The therapist was called Brian and had a thin face and dark, watchful eyes. The first time Emma sat down with him she expected him to ask her about herself, but instead he asked her about Lukas. Surprised, she hesitated, then slowly, carefully, began to talk.
It was strange, talking about him with Brian. When she tried to talk about him with Andrew or anybody else, she felt nothing.
And so she found herself trying to explain, to tell him the world around her felt unreal and yet also too sharp, too solid.
‘Sometimes I wake up and I’m not sure any of this is real,’ she’d said, then paused. ‘Like that butterfly.’
For a brief second Brian looked confused. Then he smiled, his face suddenly open, as if pleased to find a point of connection. ‘Oh, Zhuang Zhou,’ he said. Then he looked down at his notes. ‘Grief is unpredictable,’ he said when he looked up again. ‘It often finds expressions we don’t expect.’
Andrew is still asleep the next morning when she wakes. Rolling out of bed, she pulls on her robe and hurries out into the hall, her heart hammering in her chest. Even before she gets there, the cold air, the mysterious shift in seasons, tells her what she will find, but the sight of the bare wall still winds her.
She is standing there in the half-light staring at the missing wall when she hears Andrew behind her. Turning, she sees him standing in the bedroom door, a towel around his waist.
‘Em? Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
She forces herself to smile and shakes her head. ‘No,’ she says. ‘It’s nothing.’
Andrew nods, unconvinced. ‘I’ve made a booking with Dr Shen for nine thirty. I’ll drive you. I thought perhaps we could get breakfast on the way.’
She smiles, nodding. ‘Of course.’
They eat in silence in the café and then Andrew walks her the last few hundred metres to the surgery. Inside he directs her to a seat and speaks to the receptionist, leaning close so Emma cannot hear what he is saying. When he is done, he sits down beside her. ‘Do you want me to come with you?’
She shakes her head. ‘No. I’m fine.’
He is about to say something more when Dr Shen opens the glass door that leads to the consulting rooms. She looks different to the last time Emma saw her, her hair shorter, her face a different shape.
Seeing Emma, she smiles. ‘Why don’t you come through?’
They take their seats in the consulting room, Emma by the wall under a poster showing the organs and muscles from back and front. Dr Shen glances at her computer screen and then back to Emma.
‘How have you been feeling?’ she asks.
Emma forces herself to smile. ‘Okay,’ she says, nodding, trying to keep her voice bright, buoyant.
‘And you’ve been seeing Brian?’
‘No side effects from the antidepressants?’
Emma hesitates, then shrugs. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘Some confusion, perhaps?’
Dr Shen glances at her screen again.
‘What sort of confusion?’
Emma clears her throat. ‘I…I don’t know,’ she says, aware she is advancing into dangerous territory. ‘It’s more of a feeling than anything specific, but I’ve been feeling like something isn’t right, like the world is…I don’t know…fake, phony. Or I’ve stepped through a mirror.’
Dr Shen stares at her, suddenly alert.
Emma laughs, uneasily, suddenly wary. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing.’
For a long moment Dr Shen is silent as well. ‘Perhaps,’ she says in a worryingly noncommittal way. ‘I’m going to prescribe a mild sedative anyway. And if you have any more symptoms, I want you to make an appointment immediately.’
‘Of course,’ Emma says, nodding. ‘No problem.’
Outside Andrew stands up, slipping his phone in his pocket. ‘Well?’
‘I’m fine,’ Emma says. ‘She’s given me a new pill.’
Andrew smiles. ‘That’s great.’ Then he makes a face. ‘I’m really sorry about this, but I think I’m going to have to go. I have clients who want me to deal with something. Do you think you can get home on your own?’
Emma stares through the window at the grey sky, the slanting rain. ‘No problem,’ she says.
Her Uber only takes a couple of minutes to arrive. The driver is a middle-aged man with a cheerful manner. Introducing himself as Mohammed, he offers her a bottle of water, but she waves it away, and settles herself in the back seat. Andrew thinks it is rude of her to sit in the back, but she enjoys the isolation, the sense she is travelling in a bubble.
Outside the rain has grown heavier, the sound of the puddles and the wipers blotting out the radio Mohammed is playing in the front. Taking out the prescription Dr Shen gave her, she reads it, then slowly crumples it up and stuffs it into the doorhandle. As she lifts her eyes, she catches the driver watching her in the mirror.
‘A lot of rain, no?’
She stares at him. She knows the drivers are expected to talk to passengers, that it affects their ratings, but something about his manner, the sense his friendliness is somehow fake, makes her uneasy.
‘Yes,’ she agrees, noncommittally.
‘You like the winter?’
She looks up. He is staring at her expectantly.
‘The winter. You like it?’
She hesitates. Is this a test? ‘Sure,’ she says.
‘Better than the summer?’
‘Better than the summer,’ she echoes.
Mohammed watches her for a second longer than is comfortable, then looks away.
‘Much better,’ he murmurs, his attention already drifting away. ‘Much better.’
It was Trina’s suggestion they go away for the weekend.
‘You need the break,’ she said, when she introduced the idea. ‘Some time on your own.’
Emma had declined at that point, telling Trina she couldn’t leave Lukas. ‘He’s never been without me overnight before,’ she said.
‘He’s almost two,’ Trina had said. ‘And anyway, let Andrew take him. You deserve a couple of days to yourself.’
Emma had waved the notion away. How could she explain to Trina that she didn’t want to go, that she was worried what would happen to Lukas if she wasn’t there. Even an hour at the shops was enough to have her worried he’d fallen or hurt himself in some way. But when she told Andrew about the conversation that night, he surprised her by saying he thought it was a good idea.
‘Call her back, tell her you’d like to go,’ he said.
She shook her head. ‘It’s okay.’
‘It’ll do you good,’ Andrew said. ‘Give you a chance to unwind.’
She didn’t text Trina back that night, but the next time she saw her, Trina suggested some dates. Melbourne, she said. Carrie would come as well. Just the three of them. And somehow Em found herself agreeing.
As the dates approached, she found herself more and more apprehensive, terrified by the thought of leaving Lukas alone. He was still sleeping in their bed, still clinging to her, and the thought of being separated from him for forty-eight hours was almost physically painful. Sometimes when she sat with him it was like she could read his thoughts they were so close. She felt like an animal that wanted to gnaw its own leg off to escape a trap. More than once she thought about cancelling. But somehow it didn’t happen, and so, on a Friday afternoon, she found herself in the Qantas lounge at the airport drinking champagne with Trina and Carrie.
At first it was strange, to be out, barhopping and dancing and smiling for the photos Trina kept posting on Insta. Trina and Carrie always made a fuss of Lukas, especially Trina, who was his godmother, but Emma knew they didn’t really understand her life anymore, the way it had been redefined so it revolved around somebody else. And so while she laughed and went through the motions of enjoying herself, she felt like she was only half there, and had to fight to stop herself surreptitiously checking her phone in case there was a message from Andrew.
Yet as the weekend progressed, she realised she was enjoying herself. She still felt Lukas’s absence – bodily, it seemed – and found it difficult not to worry about him and the possibility something might have gone wrong. But by Saturday night she also felt lighter, freer somehow.
‘I’ve missed you,’ Carrie said to her over cocktails in a wine bar down a flight of red-lit stairs in a lane in Chinatown. ‘It sometimes feels as if you’ve just vanished out of our lives.’
Emma stared at her friend, suddenly aware how absent she’d been. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s just…’ She gestured hopelessly towards the impossibility of saying how she felt.
‘I know,’ Carrie said, her face suddenly sad, and hugged her.
But the next morning, tired and hungover, she felt guilty for feeling free. And when her taxi pulled up outside the house, and Andrew appeared at the door, Lukas in his arms, she felt an almost physical reaction as she hurried up the steps towards them, tears on her cheeks.
‘How was he?’ she asked Andrew once Lukas was in bed. Andrew smiled. ‘Good,’ he said, and then caught himself.
‘What?’ she asked.
‘I was wondering whether you’d noticed he’s a bit pale.’
Emma looked at him in disbelief. ‘What do you mean?’
Andrew shrugged. ‘I don’t know. He seemed a bit subdued. He fell asleep in the car today. It’s probably nothing.’
At first she assumed Andrew was right, that it was nothing. But over the next week or two she realised she found herself watching him more carefully. He seemed clingier than normal, his skin paler, and there were bruises that did not seem to fade.
A fortnight after she got back she took him to the doctor, who said it was probably nothing, just low iron, but took blood anyway. The next day they were at the hospital, talking about blood cells and chemo, and discussing chemotherapy regimes.
It seemed impossible to her, that they could be here, that she could not have noticed he was sick. When he had his first round of chemo she lay on the bed with him, holding him as he stared at Bluey on his iPad, her face pressed into his hair. When he watched things on his iPad he did so with extraordinary seriousness, his whole attention given over to the screen, so absorbed that even when he laughed it was internal, so he rocked back and forth in silence. Holding him then, as the poison leaked into his veins, she felt a tenderness towards him that seemed almost too much to bear, a desire to bear his injury for him. How had she not noticed? How could she have let this happen to him? And – most horrifying of all – what if the treatment didn’t work and she lost him?
The rain continues all afternoon, the sound of it dripping and pouring in runnels off the roof echoing through the rooms. Seated on the sofa, Emma stares across the room at the grey outside, watching her breath steam in front of her face. She feels dislocated, alone. Sometime after lunch her phone rings, the electronic tone of it startling her. She picks it up, sees Trina’s face filling the screen. For a second or two she considers rejecting it, but then she touches the screen.
‘Em?’ Trina says. ‘I’m so glad you answered. Andrew called, he said you hadn’t been great.’
‘I thought I’d come over.’
Emma sits in silence.
‘Okay,’ she says.
When Trina arrives, she embraces her, and Em has to fight not to pull away. Is this really Trina? Are any of them who they say they are?
Trina goes through to the kitchen and dumps her bag on the counter. She looks around herself.
‘I always forget how lovely it is here. You and Andrew did such a great job.’
Emma nods, remembering the renovations, Andrew’s laser focus on the details. Lukas had been gone six months when they started, and she had barely been able to speak, but Andrew had thrown himself into it, talking to the builders and offering them beers at the end of the day. She had hated him then, hated the way he wanted to act as if none of it ever happened. One day she cornered him in the bathroom while he was getting ready for bed.
‘You don’t miss him, do you?’ she’d said, surprised by the venom in her voice. Andrew had turned to stare at her, and for a moment she saw a loathing behind his eyes she hadn’t known could be there.
‘Of course I miss him,’ he had said, his voice low and trembling. ‘But I can’t spend the rest of my life like a ghost.’ As he spoke, his voice softened. ‘Please, Em, you have to stop. I know you miss him, but it’s too much. We have to be here.’
She remembers that night as she looks at Trina, reminded of how close Trina and Andrew had become in the months after Lukas died. Sometimes she had wondered whether they might have taken it further, but when Trina turns to her and laughs, she tells herself that was just her imagination, that Trina is her best friend.
‘Would you like tea?’ she asks, and Trina smiles. ‘Great.’
Trina chats away while Emma makes the tea, telling a long, rambling story about a party that she and Carrie went to the weekend before last. But when Emma sets the tea down in front of her, Trina’s manner changes, replaced by the look of concern she tends to use in her Insta posts when she is talking about ocean plastics or animal cruelty instead of modelling dresses and jewellery.
‘Are you alright?’
Emma nods. ‘Sure.’
‘Andrew said you’d been…down.’
Emma shrugs. ‘It’s nothing.’
‘Are you sure?’
Emma looks up at her. She realises she needs to say something. ‘Have you noticed there’s something wrong with the weather?’
‘Wrong with the weather?’ Trina repeats.
Emma knows she has made a mistake, but she stumbles on, unable to stop herself.
‘It was summer and now it’s winter.’
Trina looks uncomfortable. ‘Em, no. I think you must be confused again,’ she says.
Emma looks away, uncomfortably aware of the way Trina is staring at her. The mirror is the key. She sees it now. She has stepped through some sort of door, and this is not her world. She does not know how it happened. Perhaps it was the pills, or maybe all this is a dream. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that she has to get back.
She leans forwards and grabs Trina’s wrist. ‘Please,’ she says. ‘You can tell me. You remember him, don’t you?’
Trina looks down at Emma’s hand on her wrist, then tries to pull her arm away. But Emma doesn’t let go.
Trina stares at her. ‘I don’t know who that is, Em.’
Is she lying? Emma doesn’t know. ‘My son.’
Trina sits back and regards her warily. ‘You don’t have a son, Emma.’
‘I did, though. I did.’
‘What?’ demands Emma.
Trina hesitates, her expression sad. ‘Don’t you remember?’
Emma stares at her uncomprehendingly.
‘You had a breakdown. A few years ago.’
Emma shakes her head. ‘No,’ she says with sudden urgency. ‘That’s not true. I’ve never had a breakdown. I have – I had – a son. Lukas.’
Trina looks frightened now. ‘Perhaps I should call Andrew?’
‘No,’ Emma says, her voice sharp. ‘Don’t call Andrew.’
After Trina leaves, she sits in the dark, waiting for Andrew. After talking to Trina, she understands he is at the centre of this. It is already dark when he arrives home, running up the steps, the damp smell of the rain washing in with him. He embraces her.
‘How are you?’
She smiles. ‘Good,’ she says, forcing herself to seem happy, light. ‘Better.’
Andrew kisses the side of her head. ‘That’s great.’
In the kitchen she asks him about his day as she prepares food, and he talks cheerfully, his shirt undone at the neck. He is close to securing a client he has been after for months, and he explains his latest conversation with him with a laugh. As she watches him talk, she realises this is who he is, who he always was, that even when Lukas was alive he didn’t understand what Lukas meant, how special he was.
‘Do you ever worry that this is all there is?’ she asks. ‘All we’ll ever have?’
Andrew stops and, sliding his hand across the table, takes her hand in his. ‘I know it’s been difficult,’ he says. ‘But we all only want the best for you.’ He smiles and squeezes her hand gently.
She stares at him, wondering how he can seem so normal. Doesn’t he feel it too? Doesn’t he want to scream? Finally she makes herself smile and nod and looks away.
They finish the bottle of wine, and Andrew stares at his phone for a few minutes before standing up and saying he is ready for bed. She follows him, but as they walk through the hall, she takes his arm and stops him.
He looks around at her, and perhaps she glances towards the mirror, because she sees the way his face changes.
‘No, Emma,’ he says. ‘Not this. You said you were feeling better.’
She stares at him, wishing he would understand. ‘Please. Just look.’
He shakes his head, then seems to sink into himself.
Trembling, she pulls him towards the mirror, and he looks in. For a long moment he doesn’t move, then he looks back at her.
‘I don’t know what it is you want me to see,’ he says.
She whimpers. ‘His room. You should be able to see his room.’
‘I don’t understand what’s going on, what you think you can see, but this isn’t healthy, Emma. You have to stop.’
She stands, staring at him. Finally she nods. ‘Yes. I understand.’
Andrew is snoring gently when she gets up and wraps her robe around herself. She goes through to the laundry and opens the cupboard where Andrew keeps his tools. Reaching in, she picks up the sledgehammer and carries it back to the hall. She stands, staring at the wall. Part of her understands she will not find what she is looking for, but another part knows with an unsettling clarity that it must be there. Lifting the hammer, she swings it over her head and smashes it into the wall, the impact of the blow knocking the breath out of her. The mortar shatters, exposing brick beneath. Lifting it, she strikes again; this time a whole sheet of mortar slips free, calving away like a glacier. She swings again, harder this time, the impact reverberating through her arms, rattling her teeth. Dust fills her mouth and nose. Stepping sideways, she strikes again, and again and again, the blows coming one after another, until at last a section of wall buckles. With a scream she smashes it again, and this time the bricks tumble inwards. Grasping the haft, she pokes harder, then pushes forwards into the hole, only to find herself staring at the clothes in their wardrobe. She backs away, shaking her head. ‘No,’ she repeats to herself. ‘No, no, no.’ Turning, she sees the photo in its frame. With a roar she lifts the hammer and lets it fall. The frame crumples with a sound of breaking glass. Dropping the hammer, she grabs the mirror and rips it loose from the wall, but it is heavier than she expects, so she overbalances and it slips from her hand. She cries out and tries to catch it, but she is too late: it hits the ground and the glass shatters. Behind her the bedroom door swings open, and Andrew emerges. He stops and stands, staring, his mouth open and eyes wide.
‘What have you done?’ he says.
She stares at him. ‘I had to find it,’ she says. ‘I had to get back.’
He doesn’t speak, but she sees something in his face she had forgotten.
‘Emma. This is too much. I can’t keep doing it. You need help.’
She nods. The intensity that propelled her here is gone; in its place she feels empty and afraid.
Andrew takes a step towards her. ‘The mirror,’ he says.
She nods, kneeling down. ‘I know. I’ll clean it up.’
He kneels beside her. ‘No. It’s fine.’
She begins to sob. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s okay,’ he says. ‘You just need to rest.’
‘Yes,’ she says, suddenly very tired. ‘You’re right.’ But as she speaks, her gaze falls on a shard of the mirror lying on the rubble on the floor. It is rimed with dust, but as Emma stares at it, she realises she can see the door to Lukas’s room and the space beyond reflected in its filthy surface. Reaching out, she closes her hand around it and picks it up.
‘Rest,’ she says, holding it to her chest, the sharp edge of the glass against her fingers and palm. ‘I just need to rest.’
“The Counterworld” copyright © 2023 by James Bradley
Art copyright © 2023 by Mary Haasdyk