By Alejandro Leopardi
As Gabe lays there, the only thing on Laura’s mind is the doctors’ and nurses’ aversions to the presentation of a mirror. It’s a singular object that most people overlook daily, yet it receives such a negative reaction from the medical staff. Why? What could it possibly do to Gabe? He’s lifeless – well, not technically. Life rests within him, but there doesn’t seem to be anything that can jolt him back to the active form of living. Laura desires to be the catalyst for his revival. Unfortunately, the scope of her knowledge is limited to that attained on trivial television dramas, and in the current climate, that just won’t suffice. There’s no standing by – Gabe never would’ve stood by if the roles were reversed. No, his search for a remedy would not have ceased for anything or anyone.
The more she thinks about it, the more Laura realizes her relentlessness is justified in Gabe’s fictional reciprocal deed. No alternative option. No way. Laura’s right and she knows it. She pulls out a small mirror from the back pocket of her jeans and makes her way, slow and calculated, over to him, keeping an eye out for any intruders who may halt her actions. If he could just see himself, forced or not, he could remember what he’s missing, how good he has – or had – it. Gabe could see who he is and who she is; more importantly, he’d see who they both were together. He has to. Remembrance: it’s a powerful tool. A mirror. It sees only the object in front of it and reflects it back onto that object. No obstruction and no illusions. It’s the key
Everything floats, seemingly defying gravity, as objects travel through the air without restriction. A half-empty coffee cup cuts through thin air, its contents spilling upward. A cell phone swirls around in technological beauty before coming into contact with an umbrella, both softly splitting apart. Two arms reach upward as in celebration, though they’re simultaneously inert. Another pair of hands attempt to grasp for safety, unable to do so before…
A loud, hard, crunching crash to the ground! The majesty of the hovering objects and floundering arms comes to an aggressive halt. Belts continuing to spin uncontrollably can be heard just outside. An engine purring with some life still in it means all hope is not lost. Until smoke slowly envelopes the scene, masking the horror that lays in and outside of the inescapable capsule.
The head of a man slumped over a steering wheel lifts only slightly, the pain throbbing, coursing through his brain, blood dripping, oozing. That man’s head turns ever so sluggishly to grab a glimpse of the other poor soul in the passenger seat. It’s a mess of mangled limbs and undiscernible features.
“Ahhh!” the man yells as agony overtakes him, his arms attempting to force his body upright. The agony isn’t his own pain, but that of the other being just inches from him. “La…” an excruciating bout of blood-coated coughing prevents him from speaking even a single word.
He spits out blood, hopes that’s it.
Another try. “Say something. Please,” he finally lets out, but the words themselves understand the ghastly truth before they hit the air.
His arm extends outward and reaches for her body, his fingers softly brushing her still body. Nothing. No movement. Not a breath. Nothing to console the man behind the wheel. He begins weeping, the event too much to handle.
Just as his eyes sweep up toward the rearview mirror, the hood of the car pops up. An explosion converging in the engine, fire ripping from inside.
In the distance, voices can be heard. Male, female. He can’t tell. Words of encouragement, he’s sure. Those words won’t quell the cynical reality of his situation, no matter how often or lurid they become.
Whenever Gabe looks at Laura, his entire body flutters. Stomach butterflies? Not for Gabe. The very sight of her sends his body into shock. Unable to stop it, Gabe can only take short glances at a time. A full stare would mean a complete shutdown of his nervous system. Total beauty paralysis, he’d later remember labeling the ordeal.
The first time he met Laura, a year or so ago, Gabe swore he wasn’t looking for anything with anyone. Didn’t need it. No use for more people in his life. Laura, however, became the exception that he couldn’t escape no matter how much he resisted.
It all happened on a day like all others. Gabe dragged himself into the office for yet another string of meaningless meetings, a schedule he loathed, a schedule that made him contemplate the worst of all acts, just a few seconds every day. He preferred not to admit it, not even to himself. It made him feel weak, and sad, and a bunch of other feelings he’d like not to feel. That day, that particular day, however, was one that would forever change more lives in ways than they could realize. He never saw it coming. Even if he did, he would’ve ignored it, thought it absurd. Gabe already had too much to deal with.
As he trudged to his third, exhausting meeting, his mind already mush, Gabe didn’t think he could bare it. He even considered falsifying some illness, something countless other employees did regularly, though typically not he. When the thought occurred, Laura put a halt to all of that. While the world didn’t cease moving as they do in romantic comedies, it definitely slowed, just a bit, so that “fate” could intervene.
There, by the corner coffee machine, a K-cup in her hand ready to serve the other members of the snore committee, her shoulder-length auburn locks waving in some imaginary wind, her youthful skin and bright outlook on the future, Laura unwittingly stirred something in Gabe. A tug and pull of emotions commenced in him that he hoped would dissipate on its own. He looked away, looked at her, looked away again, and then made the conscious decision to slide toward the opposite side of the room to avoid her altogether. Unbeknownst to him, she had already made, scanned, and assessed him, all in the time it took Gabe to admire and then protract from her. What she saw, she liked, and when Laura liked something, every attempt would be made to attain that certain something. Gabe would not be the exception.
After the meeting, the bore drones poured out of the conference room, and our leading man tagging – or tailing – along. Just as he felt he made his escape, a tap on the shoulder let him know that fleeting moment was over. He was so close.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Costa, but I’m Laura Murano, the new intern in the marketing department,” she uttered to him.
Her sweet breath brushed the hairs on the back of his neck. Smokey vowels and consonants fluttered in and around his ears, teased the senses, and formed clouds of arousal. The lure was irresistible, the words circled like a predatory swarm of linguistic boas, hissing and slicing, dancing and attacking. Constricting, contracting, restricting.
Gabe turned to her anyway. Maybe he shouldn’t have.
He couldn’t move. Stumped. Stunted. All of it all at once. The moment his eyes met hers was the moment their futures were linked. That bond, no matter how hard either resisted, couldn’t be fragmented. It was the beginning of the end, figuratively, not so much literally, for the both of them.
“I’m sorry,” Gabe reached out for a handshake, “I didn’t mean to run off like that. Long day. Loads of work,” he managed a smile with that last remark.
“No worries. I figured as much,” she replied.
With each word, a new blow was struck. He had to do something, quickly.
“Did anyone give you the tour already?” Wrong move and he knew it.
With a smile as wide as the earth, “Nope. Would you mind?”
That was it.
Gabe nodded his head and his tour was underway … until he reached a conference room with blacked out windows. The reflections of every passerby were crisp, more so than Gabe had ever realized. When he approached the same windows and spied a hint of himself, anxiety boiled over in him and he immediately retreated.
Running around with boundless energy, Sofie and Lea, ten and eight respectively, couldn’t be caught, not even with Big Papa Gabe at their coattails.
“I almost had you that time,” Gabe yelped out to them. “Give me five seconds to catch my breath and we can go again. This time, both of you are going down.” He immediately bent partially over and clasped his hands on his knees, mostly to keep himself from falling.
“You always say five seconds, and then you never play again,” Sofie smartly quipped back.
“Yeah, dad,” Lea chimed in. “Come on, don’t be a baby,” she continued, a wide smirk hinted both seriousness and silliness.
What was he going to do, then? Back down? No way. He took a deep breath and pounced on both of them. The girls ran screaming in separate directions. They ran zig-zag patterns as Gabe tried his best to hunt them down. Just when he thought he’d lost them both, Sofie and Lea sprung up behind him, tackled him to the ground. At first, he yelped out in pain, which scared the girls a bit. When they realized he wasn’t actually hurt, they tickled them, the three of the them laughing uncontrollably.
Later, as the girls sipped on hot chocolates while watching some cartoon on the tablet in the kitchen, and Gabe iced his back, existence didn’t appear so cynical to him. In fact, he was downright happy at that very moment. But all moments are fleeting, and that one was no exception.
Lea turned to her father, “Is everything okay with mommy?” The question asked with pure sincerity and concern.
Sofie, the oldest and most aware of the two, looked at her sister, and then her father, and was taken aback from a question she, herself, hadn’t thought to ask. Or maybe she was afraid to ask, or afraid of the answer.
Initially, the day had been cloudless, lively, and luminous. The air was still, perfect for horsing around and play. At that instant, when his daughters became investigative journalists, that near-perfect day became endangered. Sofie and Lea threatened to rob the day of its brightness. Consequently, when Gabe peered out of the window to buy himself time so that he wouldn’t crush their little spirits, the world was, indeed, raided of cheer. Sterling silver puffs turned to platinum-colored clouds rolled in with uncertain speed. The sun had already bid its goodbye, had receded into the shelter of the sky-pillows that were sure to overcome the earth with unending precipitation. It all, without alert, hampered Gabe’s optimism and his will to conjure up a convincing fib. Any white lie would do.
“Dad?” Sofie pressed on. “What’s going on with you two?”
“Nothing. We’re fine,” he lied.
“Dad,” Sofie’s face turned sternly cold, “we heard you fight the other day.”
“A loud fight,” Lea added.
“She’s been way since then. You said she went on a stay…” Sofie couldn’t think of the proper name.
“Staycation,” Gabe helped out.
“Yeah. That. How come she hasn’t called? She doesn’t want to talk to us anymore, does she? She hates us,” the words stung as they left Sofie’s lips.
“I miss her,” Lea inserted as her eyes filled with what was sure to soon be tears. “Why doesn’t she miss us?”
Sofie grabbed Lea’s hand, enveloped it in hers. The sisters bonded, needed each other more than they ever had in their short lives.
What was Gabe to do? Would a continuance of lies suffice? He had to take action. The sorrow continued to accumulate and would eventually spread to him. He didn’t want the grief, couldn’t deal with it. So instead of having dealt with it head-on, he evaded it, used frustration in its place.
“It’s all for you two. Everything I do is for you,” he quipped. “What happened is for the best, believe me. You may not get it now, but you will one day,” and with that, he stormed off.
Tears streamed down their tiny cheeks. They couldn’t fully comprehend what was happening nor what had happened. The way they understood things, they were at fault and dad was mad at them.
There was no coming back from it, and Gabe knew it. He’d destroyed those little girls for what he initially thought would better everyone’s lives. But he knew from the onset that it was a selfish act, not a selfless one. Now he had to reconcile everything he’d done. And so he paced around the house, the sniffling from the kitchen pounding in his ears. He was filled with both fury and distress, both in constant conflict, neither of which he could rid himself of.
The hallway mirror stood just a few feet away. Gabe slowly approached it, the senses reverberating from the motionless object, but he lacked the courage he needed to take the last step. The room shook, he with it. Proximity was the danger, Gabe the antagonist and antihero who wanted so badly to face it, face himself. Yet, when he tried to look, see his reflection, the quaking became intolerable. The mirror, itself, motioned so violently that the world spun. Nausea spread through his entire body. A migraine so powerful that the room went black.
A nurse and doctor, irate, but mostly annoyed, form a sort of blockade to prevent Laura’s passing. She, in her own incensed state, won’t stand down.
“Just let me be with him,” Laura pleaded.
Doctor Hare, new to the hospital – new to the job itself, only a couple years out of residency – fears this dilemma will not be easily subdued. Ill-equipped and inexperienced, Dr. Hare wants only to maintain peace and adhere to hospital policies. There were strict instructions that no one be allowed near Gabe, especially not with certain objects. A mirror, of all things, was pinpointed as the most vital of those objects.
“You don’t get it. I have to get this to him. He has to see! There’s no other way out for him.”
The nurse steps in since the doctor is clearly unwilling to do so. “Look, miss, we can’t let you see him right now. Maybe when the therapist comes back, she’ll change her mind. For now, unfortunately, she says no, so we say no.”
“The therapist?” Laura asks assertively. “She has no idea what she’s doing or who she’s dealing with.”
“Again, it’s policy,” Dr. Hare blurts out, something he regrets almost immediately.
The fumes cover any semblance of rational thought as Laura tries to find a way around the blockade. It’s not likely it’s going to happen. Dr. Hare and the nurse aren’t budging. The therapist’s words must’ve been strong enough to force a virtual lockdown of Gabe’s space. Laura knows her way is the only way.
This innate object has morphed into a sphere of magic that can transform a situation. In this instance, it’s Gabe’s future on the line, according to Laura.
Her grasp on the mirror tightens, her knuckles turning pale white. Dr. Hare and the nurse continue to persuade her to turn around and leave, but she’s tuned them out long ago, their voices only murmurs now. Her attention is solely on Gabe’s body. Frustration bubbles more fiercely inside her now. All, or at least most, of her blood washes up to her face. Sweat builds around her brow as she plans her next move. She just can’t fail.
Someone lurks outside Laura’s apartment late one evening, hidden just out of view. The Figure stares on as Laura moves around her second-floor abode wearing only her night attire, teasing all lookers on, whether or not she’s aware. A speaker switches on, soft music plays, prompting Laura to sway and twirl to the beat. She looks happy, safe.
The Figure takes advantage of the distraction to move in closer. Slowly, calculated, the move is made through the shadows, avoiding the street lamps. Swift, sly, sneaky, all without any suspicion from Laura. Her dancing becomes increasingly more erotic, the Figure bolder in his movement. So bold, in fact, that he moves within feet of the building, close enough to be detected, but fear seems to have escaped this hidden marauder. Skipping around, the wine now flowing, Laura catches something in her peripheral. All the joy from mere seconds ago drains from her face. The realization of something awful punches her gut, leaves her mouth gaping open.
Quickly, but covertly, she slides over to the window, trying not to alert the intruder to her actions. A shadow retreats slightly, tries to hide once again in the darkness. No use. Laura’s caught him. She throws the window open and pops her head out to verbally abash the prowler.
“I told you to leave me alone!”
Nothing from the mysterious man.
“You can’t just show up at my place and do this,” she yells again. “We can’t be together. It can’t work. Go live your life and let me live mine, please,” she pleads.
“I can make it so it’s just you and me,” the man, who now confirms to Laura is Gabe, replies.
“You know you won’t leave her. You can’t. We both know it. Please, just stop,” she says, her eyes glazing from the formation of tears.
There’s nothing left for him to do or say. She’s serious and he knows it. It’s pointless to stick around, so Gabe makes his sorrowful exit.
Laura keeps watching the window, half expecting him to return, half hoping he’d do so. Her heart breaks for him, but she can’t let him know. She must remain strong.
There’s a huge fuss brewing at the hospital. Several nurses, male and female, gather to try help however they can. Doctors yell forward, but it’s no use.
In the middle of the mess, Laura throws her body around, forcing herself forward, inching closer to Gabe. Her hair tussled, face flush red. The nurses can’t seem to control to her, no matter the tactics used. Force, words, they’re all lost on her. She cannot be controlled.
“I will get to him,” Laura asserts. “No one’s going to stop me.”
As the nurses take turns getting in her way, Dr. Hare returns, this time a more stringent attitude than before. Dr. Hare approaches her, forces the nurses to make room.
Nervously, he speaks to her. “Ms. Murano, please don’t make us call security. I understand grief and I can see how adamant you are of seeing Mr. Costa, but Dr. Naake, our therapist, has spoken with Gabe…”
“He’s speaking?” Laura asks, shocked.
“Of sorts, yes,” Dr. Hare responds. “Anyway, Dr. Naake has reiterated her belief that he’s to see no one. Not for some time. It’s best for his recovery.”
Infuriated, Laura barks back, “He’s hiding, that bastard, he’s hiding. I know it. Your therapist is keeping him from me. I’m tired of waiting. This has to happen now.”
One of the nurses gets on the radio to call security, but Dr. Hare nods at him, lets the nurse know everything’s under control. Rather than react as he did previously, Dr. Hare takes a different approach this time. Having realized that Laura was hysterical because of her close connection to the patient, a connection that has somehow fractured her mental state, Dr. Hare knows he has to be more reasonable. Though he hadn’t been practicing long, Dr. Hare prided himself on his abilities to understand the human psyche. In fact, it was one of the reasons he wanted to get into medicine in the first place – to try and fix people from the inside out. In Laura, he found he could finally use his hidden skills, figure her out before someone like Dr. Naake even had to treat her.
He gently grabs Laura by the wrist and looks her in the eyes, tries to read her. While her eyes move in his direction, Laura’s lost in her own thoughts, in a world outside the realm of the hospital. Dr. Hare is but another object standing in her way.
“Barriers are only temporary,” he begins in a soothing voice. “Yours. Ours. His. With time, those barriers will disintegrate bit by bit until the smoke dissipates and the real truth makes itself known.”
Laura tries to ignore the good doctor, but his voice rattles the air, enters her ears and slithers its way into her mind. His words blur the lines of reality. Her ability to concentrate diminishes with each subsequent phrase.
Roaring down some side road near the mountains, Gabe drives, a slight smirk blessing his face. In the passenger seat, Laura is much less content. Slight fear is the only emotion visible on her face. Avoiding direct eye line with Gabe because she senses something cynical afoot, she focuses her eyes, instead, on the beautiful landscape that flashes passed her at increasingly treacherous speeds.
A couple of times, Laura begins to break the silence, but reconsiders almost immediately. Partially, it’s the fact that not much is worth saying, but partially it’s the fact that the way Gabe responds may not be favorable. Luckily, or unluckily, she doesn’t have to wait long for that break.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he mutters, a bit unwillingly. “You remember a couple of weeks after we first met, at the retreat?” His mind wanders to a fond memory, one Laura may not share so fondly at the moment. “At the bar, we were both a few drinks in. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about…anything, really. Especially you. Of course, you’re beautiful, thought so the first time I laid my eyes on you. I just thought you were out of my league. No chance. But that night, everything changed. Instantly, I was hooked. I knew nothing would rip me from you.”
“Stop, Gabe,” she says, still not baring to look at him. “Please. I really don’t want to talk about this right now.”
The car speeds up even more now. Paranoia burrows itself deeper in Laura as she sees the landscape flash before her eyes. She begins to fear the worst.
“Why did you stop loving me?” His hands shake as the words make their way to Laura. “We were so good for each other. We are good for each other. I just don’t get why you won’t just keep loving me. I told you I’d figure things out, do what was necessary to keep us together.”
“But you didn’t. And I knew you wouldn’t,” Laura returns. “What we had…it was an illusion. A temporary fairytale that I imagined would turn out much better than it did. More like I wished things to turn out the way I had dreamt them. It’s not like I was disillusioned, at least not completely. I knew what we were and what part I played.”
“Part? I can’t stand that you talk like that about us. We were perfect. Everything was perfect. All you had to do was wait a little longer,” his pleas continue.
“Waiting wouldn’t have changed a thing. No way you’d do anything to wreck things with the kids.”
That hits a nerve. The road no longer matters, his eyes remain fixed on Laura, wishing her to turn to him. She won’t budge, still terrified of what’s to come, an inkling that sits far inside her heart.
Laura continues to struggle with the nurses and doctors, arguing her way through the entire matter. Neither side relents. Both sides know their goal, will do anything to maintain their position and reach that goal. Reason against emotion, passion over logic.
“You may think you’re protecting him, but you’re not,” Laura insists. “If anything, you’re preventing Gabe from knowing the real him. Whatever fantasy world he’s in now where he only communicates to those he deems harmless is only inhibiting his recovery. I know Gabe. No one’s going to get to him like I can. I can guarantee you that. I can also guarantee that I won’t stop until I get what I want. I need to do this.”
The doctors and nurses alike have no response. They all realize, as a collective, that Laura absolutely isn’t going to give in.
Dr. Hare looks at his colleagues and offers some form of a relief. “What’s the harm, guys? Come on. What if it helps and we’re seen as the group that came up with an innovative cure for trauma?”
Not everyone is convinced. Most aren’t. But they’re tired of fighting, struggling, resisting. They want to go back to their regular duties, and some want to go home. Laura begins to look like the least of their priorities. The relieved faces of those surrounding her begin to make way. A path to Gabe’s bed is open…
Except he’s not laying in a hospital bed, and they’re no longer in a typical hospital anymore. Passed the parted sea of white lab coats and scrubs, staring out the window unable to move more than the flutter of his eyelids, Gabe sits virtually motionless in a stripped-down wheelchair. Nothingness fills his mind in this asylum. Laura’s here to change that.
With all the determination in the world, yet now more hesitant than she imagined she’d be, Laura makes her way to him. Each step closer brings on an anxiety she never knew would surface, especially not in this moment. The proximity to Gabe sends a wave of shock through her body, like a force pushing her away. Still, she presses on. She’s so close. He’s so close. The magic mirror resurfaces, and this time, Laura will make him see, no one standing in her way.
Now, standing over him, knowing there’s nothing he can do to get away, Laura regains her power and her strength. Gabe isn’t getting away. He will see. She grabs hold of the wheelchair, her grip so tight that the whites of her knuckles turn a shade of pearl. Her frustrations are put at ease once she has him in the corner, away from everyone else, isolated. No one will stop her. Laura moves into his line of sight, stares right at him. Unfortunately for her, Gabe doesn’t blink. His breathing doesn’t even quicken. It’s as if she’s not there at all.
“You may not see me, or acknowledge me, but you will see yourself, and you will remember.”
Rapidly, Laura holds the mirror in Gabe’s direct eyeline.
“No escaping now.”
Suddenly, clarity returns to Gabe’s eyes. He blinks. He sees it all.
Gabe continues to fly down the road, his full attention on Laura. He can’t believe what he’s hearing, why Laura isn’t happy about what he’s done for them, all so they can be together. What he did, he did only because he thought it would bring them together for good.
“Stop the car, Gabe,” Laura lets out. “I want to get out. Now.”
Gabe isn’t having it. “No.”
“You murdered someone, Gabe. Let me out of this car right now!” Laura demands.
“You said you wouldn’t be with me because of Mia,” he says to her, hoping to ease her anxiety.
“Because of your kids!” her words full of emotion. “I didn’t tell you to kill her. Why would you do something like that?”
“You were right about Mia. I told her about us and that I wanted a divorce. She said I’d never see my kids again, just like you said. I can’t be without my girls.”
Laura is unable to comprehend her situation. Meanwhile, Gabe’s continues to accelerate, his heart racing with every exchange.
“We were already over,” she lays it out to him.
Gabe screams back, “You broke up with me!”
“It was obvious I was just there as a distraction. I know your kids mean the world to you, but I thought I did, too. I removed myself to try and do the right thing. The stalking, the lurking, the obsession, it was destroying you and scaring the hell out of me. We’re toxic.”
A sigh from Gabe. A slight smirk. Laura isn’t convinced by his change of character, but Gabe doesn’t care. His eyes shift from her to the road for the first time in several minutes. They’ve been lucky so far.
No longer. With his eyes set on the passing horizon, Laura arrows her eyes at him. Gaging his emotional stability isn’t easy. His look has gone cold. His posture straight and stiff. He’s giving away nothing and that’s the most fearful part.
Concerned, she asks, “Where are we going?”
A smile. Not an optimistic one.
The speedometer increases rapidly, reaching ninety miles an hour. Laura’s heart races so hard that it pounds on her chest cavity. Her lungs feel compressed. Hands shake. Leg muscles tighten up.
Nervous, she tries one more time, “Please don’t do this. Gabe, I’m begging you. Don’t do this.”
“It’s too late. The worst is already done.”
The car jerks right, the back tires skid, fight to maintain traction. Left to right, the car swings like a shark on attack, virtually no control, as the car begins to lift off the ground. Gabe spins the steering wheel quickly to the left to try and stabilize the car, but then rolls the wheel to the right again, purposefully.
Screams, protests, pleads from Laura are lost. The chaos of the situation swirling around them, inside the car, through the car, and through them. The edge of the road makes itself evident, and so does Laura’s demise.
When she realizes her fate, she looks at Gabe and can only mutter, “Why?”
His only response: “Because I’ve already lost everything.”
And just like that, the pair, the couple, the once beloved, roll into a gravity-defying free fall.
Everything that’s happened, everything he’s done, all of it stares back at Gabe in that mirror. All the horrors he committed, the people he’s hurt, he can’t escape them now. Laura’s made good and sure of that. His eyes roll away from the mirror and up to meet Laura’s. He can see, and sense, the pain and sadness coursing through her. There are so many words he wants to utter to her to try and apologize for his actions, but they won’t come out. Or rather, he won’t let them.
Instead, Laura lets him know her truth: “Monster. That’s all you are. A Monster.”
With that, she turns and walks away, leaving Gabe alone to fester in his self-fulfilled solitude.
Alejandro Leopardi’s short story, “Sunnyville,” is published in the Sci-Fi anthology, Alien Aberrations. Additionally, his poem, “What If,” is published in The Sligo Journal.