June 9, 2020 for Paulo

What You See

In the mirror was a woman in a blue dress. This worried Roddy, because while she seemed very pleasant, sitting at his desk, nudging his knick-knacks here and there, he was fairly certain she hadn’t been there ten seconds earlier.

“Hello?” he asked, and she looked up, surprised to see him.

“Oh, hello,” she said. “Are these yours?”

He felt odd, having a conversation through a reflection, so he turned around—only to discover the woman wasn’t there at all. No sign of her. No hint she’d ever been there.

“That’s odd...” he said, turning back toward the mirror and—

She was right behind him!

“What’s odd?” she said, leaning her chin on his shoulder. He could feel it, and he could see it in the mirror, but in his peripheral vision, he could tell it wasn’t real. It made no sense. He couldn’t handle it.

He pulled away from her, keeping his eyes on the reflection so he could keep track of where she was. She seemed a little nonplussed by his action, but made no move to follow him.

“Who are you?” he asked. “Where did you come from?”

“I’m Poof,” she said. “And I come from right here. Well, around here, anyway. What are those things on your desk? Toys?”

“Figurines,” he said. “Models and things. Are you real?”

She smiled, and her teeth were so white, it made him dizzy. “Don’t I look real to you?”

“Well, sure,” he said, “but you also only exist in my mirror, so that raises some questions.”

She shrugged playfully. “Maybe this is a dream. Maybe none of this is real at all. Maybe if you close your eyes—”

“You’ll disappear?”

She scrunched up her nose and smiled and said: “Maybe.”

He winced at the thought of it. “I’ll do my best not to blink. Would you like some tea?”

She twirled on her toes and spread her arms out to her sides. “Tea would be lovely, thank you.”

Roddy was about to head over to the kitchenette when he realized that if he turned around, she’d disappear again, so instead he walked backwards, eyes locked on the mirror, navigating through his somewhat cluttered apartment, awkwardly, until he made it to the electric kettle.

Poof, who hadn’t moved from her spot, gave him a playful wave. “Take your time.”

“Sorry,” he said. “Just gotta find a tea bag somewhere...”

The tea was in the middle cupboard, and up high...but there was no way he could get to it without turning around. He reached over his shoulder, fumbling for the handle, and then swung it open—hitting himself in the back of the head, but still not breaking his concentration on the mirror. He snatched a spatula off the counter nearby and reached up over his head and behind, and smacked at the box of tea until it fell out on the floor.

“You can turn around if you need to,” said Poof, amused at all the trouble he was going through.

“No no, I’m okay,” he said, bending down to reach the tea, eyes still locked on Poof’s reflection. He got it, finally, and came back up with a pair of tea bags ready for use.

Back over at the kettle, he found a pair of mugs and set them on the counter, then dropped the tea bags in. The kettle clicked, and he lifted it carefully, trying to aim from a distance, in a reflection, with Poof standing partly in the way. She smiled at him, sweetly, as he struggled.

“Please say you don’t need sugar,” he said with a smile, and she laughed, and shook her head.

The first cup overflowed slightly, but not too badly. He adjusted the position of the second one and poured—

“Ouch!” he got hot water all over his hand. He looked down, hissing at the pain—but then realized what he’d done, and jerked his head upright again, praying that Poof hadn’t—

She was standing right next to him. For a fraction of a second, he thought he saw red in her eyes. But then she was smiling again, resting her head against his shoulder like she’d known him for years.

“You okay?” she asked. “Here, let me kiss it better.”

He wasn’t sure what to do about that. She was gesturing for him to give her his hand, but there was something about her that really didn’t sit well anymore. He was tempted to close his eyes and make her disappear, but something in the back of his brain told him that was a really bad idea.

But she was still waiting for his hand. And he couldn’t quite bring himself to disappoint her. So he did as he was told.

She kissed his knuckles lightly, then gave them a little blow, and said: “There. All better.”

He wasn’t sure if they were all better, but they didn’t hurt as much anymore.

“Th-thanks...” he said, and lifted her mug with a trembling hand. “Here you go.”

She was wrapped around him, practically, watching his neck with a little too much interest. “Pass it back?”

He did as he was told. She took it from him, just as the mug left his peripheral vision, and took a sip.

“Mmm, delicious...” she said, right into his ear. “You know what else is delicious?”

Roddy felt a shiver run through him. “Cookies?” he yelped.

“What?”

“Cookies are delicious. Here, uh, let’s see...” He fumbled through the cupboard in front of him until he found a box of cookies. He mashed and smashed the box into the counter—knocking his tea onto the floor—until an assortment of sugary goodness was crumbled all over the place. “Mmm, cookies,” he said. “Want some?”

Poof seemed unsure. “Will you feed me?”

“No!” said Roddy rushing away, back toward the mirror, without looking at anything but Poof’s reflection. “No, I’m sorry. I can’t.”

“Why not?” she sulked, staying back in the kitchen. “Did I do something wrong?”

He sighed deeply. “Poof, are you by any chance trying to eat me?”

She put a hand to her chest. “Me?”

“Yes. Because you’re giving off this very I am trying to devour humans vibe, and quite honestly it’s freaking me out.”

She put her hands on her hips and frowned. “Roddy, do I look like the kind of girl who’d devour humans?”

He wasn’t sure how to say this nicely, so he went with a meek: “Kinda, yes?”

Her expression went from friendly bemusement...to dejection. “No, really? It’s that obvious?”

“What?”

“I’m never going to pass my exams like this. What gave me away? Was it the dress? The blue? Too non-threatening?”

“No, I just—”

“Roddy, please. If I don’t pass this test, they’re going to make me a toilet demon. I’m going to be living in toilets for all eternity. I really can’t handle that. I have a very sensitive gag reflex and it’s just—”

“Wait wait wait,” said Roddy, and clapped his hands together for good measure. “Are you saying you’re a demon?”

She pumped her fist in the air. “Yes! You couldn’t tell! Not as bad as I thought!”

“So why are you in my apartment? Why are you trying to eat me? What exam?”

She sighed and leaned against the counter, but didn’t move her feet, he noticed. She munched on the cookie bits he’d left behind. “Placement exams,” she said. “You do well, you get the good assignments. You do poorly, you end up—”

“In the toilet,” he said. “But why me? Why a mirror? I don’t—”

“I’ve always dreamt of being a mirror demon,” she said. “You know, hide out in the reflections, and then rawr! Chomp chomp chomp.”

Roddy felt that shiver again. And not in a good way. “But you can only move if I look away?”

She slumped, smacking her head into the counter. “You could even tell that? I’m so going to fail. Even in a dream, you can tell.”

Roddy frowned. “A dream? So this is a dream?”

“Yeah, we get to practice in dreamspace until our exams, just in case we mess things up like I have. Limits the damage and stuff. Just not to our self-esteem.”

She looked so depressed, Roddy had a hard time not feeling sorry for her. He remembered trying to parallel park ahead of his driving test, and how bad he’d been at it, and how certain he was that he’d fail. And then he had failed. Twice. So to see Poof beating herself up, it really struck a nerve...

“Let’s practice,” he said. “Together. We can practice together until you get it right.”

She looked up, tears in her eyes. “What?”

“If it’s only dreamspace, I mean, what’s the harm? I wake up with a nightmare, and that’s it? I can handle that. Let’s figure this out together.”

She wiped her eyes. “You’d do that for me?”

He laughed, shrugged. “I guess I would.” He motioned her over. “Can you come a bit closer?”

“Not if you’re looking,” she said. “You need to blink.”

He did as he was told, and then she was on the closer side of the counter, leaning against it like she was waiting for a friend at the bar. Her smile was playful again. Tempting.

“So what can we change?” he asked. “What’s up for grabs?”

“Anything,” she said with a shrug. “I’m a canvas, ready for your paint.”

Her enthusiasm was a little creepy, but he ignored it. “This may be a dumb question, but why not just go scary? Like if you can be anything, why not just be a ten-foot-tall monster with massive fangs and dripping pus and blood, and scare me into looking away?”

“Ah,” she said, raising a finger and staring into the sky to recite, from memory: “‘Candidates are graded on the serotonin levels in the subject’s system at the time of death.’ So if you’re not happy...”

“...you fail. Right. So if happier is better...”

Her blue dress shimmered and turned into a red one. Blood red. With lipstick to match. “How’s this?”

“Much worse,” he said. “If I didn’t expect trouble before, I do now. Try something neutral. Black?”

Her clothes turned into a kind of funeral outfit, with a black veil. “Better?”

“Not exactly.” He tried to think of what would work better... “Maybe a dress is the wrong approach. Try casual instead.”

She winced. “That’s a bit more involved. Give a girl some privacy and blink for a sec?”

He laughed and obliged. When the blink was over, she was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, looking a lot more at home in a place like his apartment.

“That’s the one,” he said. “Maybe take the environment into consideration when you choose. Fancy house, fancy dress. Normal house...”

“Got it,” she said with a cute little smile. “What next?”

He shifted his focus to his desk, with the figurines she’d been playing with earlier. “The way you started was good. Making me feel at ease with a strange situation. Maybe do more of that. Have a reason to get closer.”

She took a mental note. “Blink, please.”

He did, and then she was standing in a different position, holding one of his figurines, studying it intently. “This one looks tough,” she said. “Who is he?”

“Master Chief,” said Roddie. “That’s a limited edition.”

“What’s a limited edition?” she asked, turning the figure around. “How can you tell?”

“He’s got a hologram sticker on his boot that—”

“Show me,” she said, and before he knew it, he’d blinked, and she was right up against him, with Master Chief on his shoulder. He inhaled slowly. His body wasn’t sure if it was happy, or terrified. It’s all a dream, he told himself. This is just an elaborate dream. Enjoy it while it lasts.

“Show me the sticker,” she said softly.

He took the figurine from her hand and turned it around, tapping a finger on the tiny, shiny patch on Master Chief’s heel. “That’s it,” he said, then cleared his throat. “But, uh, yeah. That’s great. Much better. You do something like that on the exam, and you’ll do great.”

Her smile was infectious. “You really think so?”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “I actually feel really good right now, despite knowing who you are and what you’re trying to do. Though I guess it helps that you can’t hurt me in the dreamscape.”

“Yeah, so about that...” she said, and dug her nails into his shoulder, and when he cried out in pain, his eyes closed for half a second, and she—


Written for Paulo, whose topic was: reflection/dream/transformation.