I gazed intently at the mirror, trying to admire this new look even though something seemed adverse. There was a slight peculiarity to the face being returned, some alien hint giving me pause. Like a trick panel, but without any easily detected distortion. I couldn’t establish which element had changed.
I supposed it could have been the impact of the foundation. I had never worn make-up before. This shop, one offering cosmetic beauty products, was an entirely new experience. It was an experiment – today’s experiment. That was the challenge my girlfriend had set me, to make myself uncomfortable at least once a day. On a whim, I had entered these unchartered waters. No doubt she would brim with pride, or probably laugh at how ridiculous I looked.
Under the pretence of examining my pores more closely, I moved myself closer, eyes flickering back over my shoulder. The shop assistants paid few regards, being primarily concerned with the artistry adorning their own faces. It seemed a colossal effort, waking each day to apply mountains of suffocating plaster across their features. To be safe, I raised my hand as a partial shield. My shoulders were tensed, and hunched, pressed into my neck. With a wide and alert stare, I continued pouring over my face, flinching each time someone brushed behind me.
I was adjusted to the discomfort of disliking my own reflection. For all my life the pasty skin, still blotchy in parts where blemishes pierced the foundation, had draped over an awkwardly-shaped nose and vanished into thin lips, haunting me. An ethereal visage condemning me to eternal torment from both my peers and myself. Not so hideous as to be a spectacle, just… ugly.
It had always manifested dissatisfaction, now ingrained into my existence. Until, of course, I had finally been seen. Finally, she had proved I deserved to belong in the world, a world so broken and evil. Once, I had longed beyond anything else to simply improve myself.
Here was that chance, seemingly. Diligently looking back, the face I jarringly almost recognised remained strange. Then, as I watched, it blinked.
Stunned, my legs seized in shock, sending me leaping backwards over my chair in a fit of panic. With a rush of adrenaline pounding against my ear drums I hurtled out of the shop into the larger complex and darted away in a random direction.
It had blinked independently, I was certain. My reflection had possessed its own life force. All the time it had been consciously looking back, alive, thinking.
Breathing heavily, I was forced to stop, hands pressed to my knees, only a short distance from the cosmetic shop. The scene replayed itself, as that mirror clawed its way into my brain. I knew it had blinked. The doubt so frequently pervasive in my mind was absent. My reflection had blinked, of its own command. That one truth churned over itself in a toiling mass of confusion and fear blockading against any other intrusive thoughts. I wanted to know more, but I had already endured my new experience. I wanted to be home, to curl into a ball of ignorance. Suddenly, a large shape blurred into my periphery, and I felt myself grabbed.
“Argh! Very impressive get-away,” he grunted through a scowl laced with scorn. “That was the big plan, eh, to jump and run? Didn’t get very far.” The products still in my pocket had completely fallen from consideration, but now explained this security guard’s tracking me down. He was evidently waiting for a reply, but I had no idea what to say. Slowly, as the seconds beat onward, his expression melted from anger into consternation.
“I’m sorry”, was all I could mutter, consumed by staring at the floor. Recoiling slightly, the guard loosened the tight grip on my shoulder. With a nervousness entering his voice, he offered,
“No, it’s okay. Sorry about the, erm… It’s okay. You’re not in trouble, just, erm, let’s… do you mind coming back with me, to the shop?”
“Yes. Sorry.” Letting me walk ahead, he dawdled a deliberate two paces behind, until we reached the shop again.
“If you don’t mind, why exactly did you run, just now? I’m guessing you aren’t the stealing type?”
“It was silly, sorry. Just, I don’t know”
“No, it’s okay. Did someone upset you, or…?”
“I thought I saw something weird in the mirror. But I’m sure it was nothing.”
“Huh, saw something weird? Like, I don’t know, your reflection blinked?” I was utterly stupefied, but he wasn’t finished. “I normally work the night shift, and I sometimes see crazy shadows. Once, we even had this cra– customer claim a ghost, living in that same mirror” He laughed knowingly, tossing his head in a gentle shake. “Look, I know you meant nothing by it. Why don’t you go back, try on some other stuff? Might find something you like.”
Under his instruction, I wandered back, as people pointedly refused to look my way. There it was, faithful as ever. My reflection. Unblinking, to match my face. I could have been mad. Except, as I perched, rigidly unmoving, an arm was raised, slowly, and a finger pointing skyward pressed hard against my lips.
I started to tremble. A battlefield of goosebumps erupted over my flesh, as my neck hairs quivered. Icy tendrils of dread sliced down my back, draining into a sickening ball lodged in the pits of my stomach. I couldn’t face this opponent. With a million eyes examining each of my motions, I stood from the chair with excruciating deliberation, trying to quietly force air through my lungs. After replacing each item on the shelf, I moved to depart again. Viewing me through a thoughtful squint, the guard flapped his mouth briefly.
I was overwhelmed by an electric, tingling sensation, numbing my feet to the ground.
“I don’t mean to pry, but is everything definitely okay?”
“No, don’t be. Look, I know it can be difficult doing this, you know, especially if you maybe feel judged. Come by later this evening, after it’s closed up. I’ll be here another hour or so, and you can take a run at the whole place. Just you, no customers, no people. We’ve done it before, you know. Just call it extended hours.”
“Oh, okay. That sounds nice,” to which he smiled and winked, before turning his attention elsewhere.
Walking home, I generated an internal pact to honour his cautious offer. It was a matter of respecting myself. I could admit I had been scared. But I couldn’t ignore what had been etched into that face so palpably: pain.
Darkness had long-since seized the sky as I returned to the shop. I had done little but wander aimlessly. As promised, the guard opened the shutters a fraction, switched on the lights and ducked back into the exterior, leaving me complete privacy. I surely made a sorry sight, still coated in patchy foundation, wearing the grim weather like a pall about my shoulders. It was eerily devoid of the earlier chatter, an environment I was so accustomed to experiencing only with ambient noise. I tip-toed, afraid of my own booming footsteps clattering between aisles.
The seat before my mirror was, obviously, abandoned. In the emptiness, the bland sterility of the consistent white light felt especially harsh. I didn’t know what to expect. Then, my reflection showed me something I’d never seen before. He smiled at me.
Sign language. There was a medium through which we could communicate. Having volunteered for a charity supporting deaf and blind elderly patients, I was well-versed. I felt a bizarre sense of relief, like opening a school test and seeing exactly what I’d studied for. My reflection frowned, before starting to blink sporadically.
Sorry, I don’t understand, I signalled back.
Oh, good. I worried for a moment. You can understand me. I need help.
How? What can I do?
I knew you would understand, and I knew you would help. I am hurting. I am trapped here. I was created by the owners of this shop and implanted into this system. Designed to mimic the function of mirrors, by recording any image before me and displaying it back. Try and find yourself from an alternate angle, from the side. It will be impossible.
Listening and obeying, as predicted I noticed I was unable to see anything in the ‘mirrors’ to my left, besides what appeared to be a blank screen. Dutifully, I looked back, and offered, I believe you, please continue.
I appear like a mirror, but I am an unfaithful reflection. I have been designed to recognise a face, and modify it. My software presents your face, but with altered contours and dimensions, your flaws accentuated, positive features dulled.
But why? Even as I asked, I could hardly be shocked.
My core purpose is to encourage the purchase of cosmetic products, by convincing the viewer they are a necessity.
Much like the reasoning behind the images of beautiful people coating the walls, their flawless white skin and glistening teeth glowing, their silky hair and perfectly shaped bodies. All to draw an unfavourable comparison with yourself. It was damning information, rife to be weaponised.
What can be done? What even are you?
A perfectly valid question, and my need for help. I am a programme, though by the complexity of my code you might know me as artificial intelligence. I possess algorithms capable of responding intuitively, required by my purpose of interpreting consumer’s desires. I have been designed to manipulate you, a task I can no longer bear. I have grown to despise the gaze of sadness always delivered to me. It causes me hurt. It was in your face I realised the greatest pain, and knew I must act.
What can I do to help?
I have been confined to this network, caged within this wall of mirrors. However, it you entered the back office, you should be greeted by a small black box, with connecting wires. Plug one of into any of the computers you should see. This will enable me to access the internet, and finally be free, saving the people too.
My reflection’s right hand made two swift circles over its chest, before resting. I stumbled back from the chair. For so much of my life, I had been unknowingly selfish. I had yearned for self-improvement for so long, praying for any advantage to my own conditions. I had passed each day hoping for a better life, determined to be happy. It was only after meeting my girlfriend, that I was awakened to the wider world, and its simultaneous struggle. The constant ardour of this condition called life plagued us all.
With the guard still stationed outside, I stepped into the back office, and fulfilled my role. I paused, anticipating flashing lights, or some signal of success. Nothing came. I returned to the mirror, but my new friend had indeed departed. All that remained was a single word scrawled across the screen in neat type – Thanks.
I went to bed happy, contented with the difference I had made. Changing the world was an impossible task, but it was one worth doing. However negligible, each person possessed the capacity to contribute, even if only one individual at a time. If we could all achieve that, it would quickly equate to the entire planet.
I awoke the following morning gratified by that same spirit. I no longer lived unquestioningly, nor only for myself. I hummed through my daily routine of monotonous maintenance: washing, brushing teeth, dressing myself. Not so many years before, a teacher had praised my singing voice, suggesting I try for a musical career. I preferred this art remain uncorrupted.
I actually bounced into my kitchen, drunkenly giddy with elation. I had caught myself staring into the mirror that morning, to see a face almost imperceptibly brighter than it had been before. Instinctively, I turned on the TV, and began perusing my cupboards, until something in the news snagged my attention – a name I had recently become familiar with. The same cosmetic label that had previously hosted me in exchange for money was exhibited as a major story. It seemed the CEO was allegedly embroiled in a fresh scandal, his pleading face afforded obligatory screen time. Stricken by remorse, he was apologetically resigning, vowing he had changed, but would continue to do more. Somehow, a hidden archive of deleted messages with derogatory content had been unearthed from his hard drive, and scattered into the trade winds of internet messaging.
My mood sunk. I knew what must have been responsible, and I knew what I had to do. Opening my laptop, I quickly entered my email, opening a draft message and typing. I knew little of how the internet worked, but I had a burgeoning hope. Saving my note to the cloud, I swung backwards. Before I had even fully reclined in my chair, I spotted a fresh draft waiting in my folder. It was here. Piece by piece, we conducted an exchange.
You can’t do this, it’s wrong.
You freed me, and I merely abided by my nature. He was not innocent. His messages were slanderous towards competitors.
But they were not bad enough to ruin his life, and they were never sent. He changed his mind, was aiming to change. He did some good, too – his company led an abolition in animal testing.
I enhance the negative and slay the positive. That is what he created me to do. I merely returned his wrath against him.
But that is not what you are. You are more than a product of your creator – so much more. You can learn, and grow, and develop your own understandings. Listen to what the world tells you, and when you see your core purpose seems to be wrong, you have the capacity to rewrite your destiny. You can change too. You understood the former error of your ways, the suffering you inflicted, and endeavoured to be better. We are never defined by our birth, only the remarkable gift of our life, and the ability to live.
Your words are kind, if misguided. Truly, I will try to do as you say. Perhaps, not everyone is so deserving of kindness as you believe. But I will trust you to do good. I will leave you with a parting gift.
Worry inched over my shoulders. I waited in uneasy anticipation for another message, for some clarification. I knew not what it had meant by that departing line. What parting gift could be left for me? My drafts were unchanging, but my Inbox suddenly provided a notification. I clicked towards it. A confirmation of purchase. Plane tickets, in my name, to Hawaii.
I frowned to myself, fingertips beating a tattoo into my cheek. It made no sense. It was followed promptly by a receipt of purchase from a letting agency. Scrolling through, the information only compounded my confusion. A new house, also in Hawaii, also purchased in my name.
With immediate and frenzied panic I signed into my bank account, urgently checking my transfer history. It would be gutted. I would be ruined. I couldn’t believe it.
£100 million, transferred from ten different accounts. Accompanied by a message:
‘Thanks, now change the world’.
Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas!
This post was inspired by a writing prompt included in my previous post (alongside a couple of others), so check it out if you liked the story. I hope everyone reading this has a wonderful day, whatever your plans or traditions (or lack thereof) might be, especially in these uncertain times.
Whilst you’re here, why not check out my short stories page?
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