Teachers tell you that year twelve will be the most rewarding year of your schooling life, but they never mention how difficult they’d make it to get that reward.
I sat in English in the desk with the uneven legs – as usual. Since I was late pretty much every morning, I’d be stuck with the shit desk and the even shittier English teacher who I was fairly sure had never read To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel we were studying this semester. I guessed my reward came in the form of correcting him whenever he clearly got parts of the story wrong.
“Yes, thank you, miss Montgomery,” he would say in his passive tone that twitched his bush rat moustache. There was a reason I was an average student in English, and so far I’d learned that you got the best grades by shutting your mouth.
The words of Harper Lee never really interested me anyway, and I didn’t see how it could possibly come up in my future – unless I graduated high school to go on to be some literary scholar who could skilfully quote To Kill a Mockingbird to impress my fellow scholars. But looking around the room at the drowsy, distracted students, I knew they couldn’t care less if I corrected Mr Fischer or not.
In fact, they didn’t really care about much. I didn’t get along with any of them anyway. George, my boyfriend, was the only person at my school that had anything interesting to say, ever.
“Emilia! Wait up!” I heard a voice call after me later in the day and I turned to see my boyfriend jogging up to meet me, one hand behind his back and the other holding up his uniform pants.
“Forget to wear a belt today?” I laughed as he hooked them back on his hips.
“I couldn’t find it this morning.” He frowned, pulling his other arm into view. “I did find this though.”
George produced a small, diamond-studded case in the palm of his hand and placed it in mine. I opened it up and stared back at my reflection in the compact mirror, one side more magnified than the other. I swallowed hard, trying not to meet his eye.
“You found it,” I said, because I had no idea what else to say.
“Yeah, it was under my bed. You don’t exactly look relieved. Don’t you like it?”
“I do, George, I do,” I tried to reassure. “It’s just…”
“Just what?” he said a little to forcefully, which caused me to snap back.
“Who gets their girlfriend of a year a mirror for their birthday?” I finally blurted, two weeks of pent up feelings draining George’s face pale.
“It was supposed to be symbolic. I know how you love that kind of stuff. The mirror symbolises –”
“‘The beauty I see in you’, I know. But I don’t exactly feel anything when I look at myself in this.”
“This is your problem, Emilia,” he said, and his dimple jerked. My throat began to burn. “You don’t have any respect for yourself. I try and encourage you but you knock me back.”
I wanted to snigger and to tell him he was being an idiot but it was third period and I had no energy to have a petty argument with him. But when I didn’t reply, George said those bittersweet six words in the silence: “I think we should break up.”
I stared at him incredulously. “What?”
“I miss being your best friend,” he said, “so maybe we should just keep it that way. How am I supposed to love you if you don’t love your own Reflection?”
I wanted to snigger. Tell him he was being an idiot. But once again I had no energy so I folded my arms with lips firm and eyelashes shielding the scald of frustrated tears.
“You know what?” I said, finally looking into his olive eyes, which couldn’t be more putrid. “You can go screw yourself.”
I took the mirror between my hands and snapped the hinges, pressing it firmly into George’s shirtfront.
“Jerk,” I said, knocking his arm as I stormed passed him.
The rest of the day went quieter than usual. I didn’t encounter George again, as I assumed he was avoiding me as much as I was, after my little outburst. In a way, I saw it coming. Perhaps he just couldn’t figure out the way to do it. At least with the mirror, it provided the perfect alibi to swiftly dodge any guilt that would fall upon him in the process.
How am I supposed to love you if you don’t love your own Reflection?
I considered that on my walk home from school, asking myself if I loved my Reflection. What, the mirror image of myself based on the one in the sky? I’d call it tolerance. Even the vain couldn’t possibly enjoy the constant surveillance of the Coexistence whenever they left the house. It was nothing like seeing your reflection in a compact mirror, but for some unknown reason it was more important to love yourself in the Coexistence than it was to actually love yourself.
I eventually came to the conclusion that George was just an asshole.
Mum had the television on when I got home. The warmth and bodily sweat that tucked discomfortingly under my school dress reduced drastically once inside the cool walls of my house, and I kicked off my shoes, which bounced off the tiles and landed sideways. Nobody sat in the lounge room, and the model on the TV screen was left alone to twirl against an animated backdrop. It was normal for afternoon television to incessantly advertise beauty products and self-motivational gimmicks for housewives who believed that their Reflection literally ‘reflected’ their inner self.
It was total crap, yet I still bought their lipstick.
How far the world has come, I thought, remembering our military’s first line of attack after the fearful scrutiny of the unidentified occurrence.
“They’re launching!” my father had called from the living room. I had dropped my spoon into the half-eaten bowl of cereal and followed my mother into the next room where the television set broadcasted live from the United States.
“We are a short distance away from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Delmarva Peninsula where the GIM-63 missile is being launched as the first confrontation with what scientists are calling an uncharted phenomenon that appeared in the sky no more than 12 hours ago. Direct command from the President at the White House for protection and defence has been granted and we are moments away from what could possibly answer the questions that the world so desperately asks.”
“I don’t understand why they have to send a rocket at the thing to get them,” I commented, but my mother shushed me and swatted my leg.
On our small screen, we watched as the missile shot into the sky, a duplicate of the weapon reflected back as it came up to meet it. I held my breath for one second, then two, then five and six. I had begun to assume it was endless. Since the Coexistence appeared in the sky, there had never been such silence, and I had wondered which human reaction scared me more. No screams, no commentary, just soundless anticipation for impact.
I didn’t quite know what to expect at fourteen years of age, let alone what the world expected. But finally, the missile made contact and split outwards in a heat of fire and smoke. The cameraman filming the event had stumbled, causing the footage to be lost in a sea of screaming people and falling shrapnel. One camera panned up to the sky, where a cloud of ash was dissolving, only to materialise the reflection’s glassy shine, not a mark or dint left in its wake. This was the first time Earth had made physical contact with what the world understood to be scientifically impossible.
“God will save us,” my mother had whispered to herself.
I hadn’t noticed my fingernails had torn through the flesh of my palm until I opened my fist – sweaty, sticky and red. I couldn’t feel the pain over the loud ringing in my ears. Had the television volume been up too loud? Or was it the realisation that God couldn’t save us?
“Is that Bobby or Emilia?” I could hear mum from the kitchen, bringing me back to reality.
“Emilia,” I called back.
Mum came into the lounge room with a dishtowel between her fingers. “How was your day?”
“It was fine,” I said nonchalantly, putting my feet up on the couch. “George broke up with me.”
Her eyes softened, posture slanted, arms slumped. I could already sense the oncoming pity. “Oh, sweetie –”
“Mum, don’t. I really don’t care.”
“Well, what did he say?” she persisted.
“He said I didn’t love my Reflection, so he couldn’t love me,” I said.
“Boys are just awful. They’re using Reflections as a pathetic excuse to judge your worth.” Mum shook her head.
I didn’t disagree, but I also didn’t see the Coexistence as a foreboding scale to constantly seek approval from. I rather saw it as a pure ocean, a great expanse of water that had the ability to distort reflections of objects against the surface, and so often you might see your own and proclaim, “Hey, that’s me!”
“You’re probably right,” I said, watching a program that involved installing mirrors on the ceiling of a newly renovated home. Mum stood in the doorway for a minute more before retreating back into the kitchen.
Dinner was quiet. Bobby ate with his mouth open, dad breathed heavily from his nostrils when he chewed, and mum consumed slowly over a novel.
“Bobby, could you close your mouth when you eat?” I interrupted the irritatingly audible silence. He paused, jaw wide, allowing bits of meat and potato to fall down his chin. “I’m hungry,” he said as if I had no understanding of the concept.
“It wouldn’t kill you to slow down,” I said.
Bobby stared back at me, pudgy cheeks filled with food, and ate behind tight lips, making a squelching sound with each chew.
“Bedder, Milly?” He sprayed some of his food onto the table as he spoke.
“You’re so gross. Mum, are you seeing this?” I said, and without taking her eyes off the page she replied, “Bobby, eat properly. Emilia, stop provoking him.”
I bit back the urge to retaliate, much to Bobby’s satisfaction, so instead I dug my toenail into his leg underneath the table.
“Ouch!” He cried out (as a seven-year-old would) and mum gave us a warning.
“I read about a plane crashing in Thailand the other day,” I said, trying to spark conversation.
Dad looked up from his meal. “Oh yeah? I thought they stopped flight travel because of all those malfunctions.”
“Apparently these guys had a plane and assumed it would be a good idea to fly. Maybe they hadn’t read about airlines shutting down.”
“You’d think they’d be aware of it after two years though,” he said.
“Emilia, this isn’t really dinner conversation, is it?” my mum said. “And don’t encourage her, Dan.”
And just like that, we spent the rest of the meal in silence once more.
Sometimes I missed seeing a normal sky. Nobody said, “What a perfect day to spend outside!” anymore. The phrase just died. And with the death of a phrase subsequently caused the death of activities actually involving going outside. At least, that’s what my parents must’ve thought. It didn’t rain often, but when it did I thanked the clouds for hiding the abnormality. At least I could pretend we couldn’t go outside.
I went to the park often. I'd lie on my back and imagine myself staring up at the natural grandeur of sapphires forming the sky as it burned orange to purple. The last time I saw a perfect sunset I was fourteen and we bathed my little brother in his plastic pool in our backyard. I had been worrying about the mosquitos and Bobby’s rosy skin and the grass rash on the underside of my legs. To say I regretted not appreciating that moment was an understatement.
Now, looking up at the sky on a towel against the sharp grass, it was a reminder that there were children being born into this world not knowing any different. To them, this obscure, glass-like atmosphere was their perfect day. No doubt Bobby could remember. He’d come home from school with drawings of himself in the sky, unlike the corner-of-the-page sun and squiggle of blue crayon I drew as a child.
A bunch of kids and adults were kicking around a football and I watched through the Reflection as their heads bobbed and arms flailed and legs ran in pursuit of the red rubber ball. Further along were people spread out around a gazebo eliciting barbeque smoke. A dog was running, and a couple were having a picnic. The grass was yellowing in sections, and a guy walked towards me.
I pulled out my headphones and sat up, automatically fearing an unwanted encounter with George. It was hard enough being dumped, and I wasn’t sure what I was capable of keeping my pissed-off demeanour if he confronted me again. But upon removing my sunglasses and combing the park, no one approached me, or even seemed to exist in the first place. My eyes pursued the sky once more, but whoever it was no longer made themself visible. Perhaps I missed George. Or perhaps that was bullshit.
With my back pressed against my towel once more, I tried to re-enter my muse, but I was certain there was someone watching.
There! I caught sight of the wanderer once more and shot up, retracing their location beneath the Coexistence. My forehead burned with both frustration and a touch of paranoia as I discovered zilch. Back and forth my eyes spun from sky to land and every second the figure walked idly above, I reeled in bewilderment below.
I gathered up my belongings and took off, dodging the football game and the barbeque and the couple’s picnic. Every so often I’d check the sky and the figure would be standing a distance away, almost like a vulture lingering upon its prey. The resemblance caused my legs to tremble, but I would not succumb to some kind of trick of the light that triggered the fear of something that did not exist.
I made it down my street and I didn’t look up until I closed the front door behind me.
“Bobby or Emilia?” came my mother’s automatic call. I caught my breath and bit down on the bile of exhaustion from running down the block.
“Just me,” I managed to say.
I ran to the laundry. I stripped down and shoved my clothes in the washing machine. Bare in my underwear, I sat on the floor and listened to the machine's soft vibrations until my heart had settled to a normal pace.
It all felt too familiar.