"She's Waiting in the Reflection"
Written by Micah Edwards
ESTIMATED READING TIME — 10 MINUTES
I wasn’t always alone. I used to have friends. Four or five, at least. Good friends, I mean, actual friends, the kind who matter to your life. I’m pretty sure I had four. I don’t think there were five.
I’m going to tell this story as it probably happened. Otherwise, it’ll be full of “I think”s and “I guess”s and “it must have been”s. So just know that this is true, as far as I can put the pieces together. There’s a lot of guesswork and probably a bit of wishful thinking, but I’ve done my best.
The five of us were hanging out one night a couple of months ago: me, Marc, Bethany, Zoe and Andrew. It was a game night, so we sat around with beers and snacks and casually insulted each other all night, all in good fun. It was a comfortable, fun time, with friends who go way back. We’d already weathered the storms that had eroded the rest of our group — moving, kids, whatever. Bethany had dated Marc for a while, and dated me after that. In addition to Bethany, Marc had dated Andrew, too, and Zoe for like a week. I was the only one of us Marc hadn’t slept with, and it was a constant joke that he wanted to collect the whole set.
We’d had plenty of hurt feelings in the past, is my point, but we’d come through it. We were all on easy, good terms with each other. We loved each other.
Andrew’s the one who suggested the game. It was midnight or so, and no one was going home yet, but the card games had died down and we were all just lounging around.
Curiosity Killed the Cat, he called it. He made a spreadsheet and put it up online, and we all got our phones out to edit it. We each put our name in, followed by the number 10. Andrew hadn’t told us why, yet, but with the name of the game, no one wanted to be the first to ask. Andrew just stared at us expectantly, though, grinning, and finally Zoe broke down and asked him what the deal was.
“It’s simple,” he said. “Last one on the sheet gets twenty bucks from everyone else, eighty dollars all told. Every time you look at the sheet to see the rankings, though, you’ve got to decrease your number by 1. When it gets to zero, you’re out.”
“I just won’t look, then,” laughed Marc.
Andrew smiled. “Two catches. No one ever has to tell you if you’ve won. So if you never look, we might all owe you twenty bucks that you’ll never know about. And also, everyone’s allowed to lie. I could tell you you’ve won — or that I have, for that matter. If you want to find out for sure, you’ll have to go look.”
“What’s to stop me from just looking and not decreasing my number?” asked Marc.
Andrew looked hurt. “Basic honesty?”
“A sense of self-worth,” I added.
“Not ripping off your friends?” offered Bethany, and Marc threw up his hands in surrender.
“All right, all right, no cheating! Got it.”
“Last rule,” said Andrew. “Everyone puts a link to the sheet on the front page of their phone. That way, we’ll all have to think about it. Curiosity begins…now! Remember, all you have to do to win is just don’t look.”
“Oh man, I just won,” said Marc. “I don’t know how you all looked so many times already, but you guys all owe me twenty bucks.”
We pelted him with popcorn.
* * * * * *
The first few days were easy. No one could possibly have been out so soon, so the urge to look was low. I would have forgotten about it entirely, except that every time I opened my phone, the little spreadsheet icon labeled Curiosity was sitting right there, waiting for me to click it.
After a week, I cracked for the first time. I had to know how my friends were doing with the temptation. And 10 was such a high number, it was hardly going to matter if I dropped it by one, anyway. If I wanted to, I could check it every week for two months and still be in the game.
So I opened it. Bethany and I were the only ones still at 10, and of course I promptly changed my number to 9, joining Andrew and Zoe. Marc was down to 8 already, which fit; he was never the patient sort. I closed the window and sent a group message to my friends reading, “Marc, how’d you get down to 4 so soon?”
My phone buzzed a minute later with a response: “Left my phone open, cat walked on the keyboard, changed my number. Thanks for letting me know! Everyone else better log in and check their numbers, too.”
I laughed. It would have been marginally more believable if Marc had owned a cat.
This started the lying in earnest, though. Not a day went by without one of us trying something to get the others to look. Sometimes it was by group message, but more often it was a direct communication. They ranged from the blatant, like Zoe’s “You must have a will of steel! Your score is double mine!”, to Andrew’s subtle “Marc’s out; want to help me trick Zoe into lowering her score next?”
That one actually got me. I legitimately wasn’t sure if Andrew was telling the truth or not, and we were almost to the end of the second week anyway, so I clicked Curiosity to find out, dropping my score to 8. If I’d had to bet before I signed in, I would have said Andrew was telling the truth, but Marc was still in there at 6 and Andrew was the only one of us left at 9. I resolved to up my game.
* * * * * *
Bethany and Marc made the next move a few days later, early into the third week. Bethany sent a group message: “Nice work with the creepy interface, Andrew!”
Marc responded a minute later with, “Yeah, saw that over the weekend. Didn’t know you could do that with spreadsheets!”
It was a setup, an obvious setup. But what if it wasn’t? What if there really was something cool to see, and I was missing it? I wouldn’t put it past Andrew to add something as a lure.
I resisted it for a full day, then broke down and opened the spreadsheet. We were into the third week anyway, so I was still basically on track. As I suspected, there was nothing there but our names and numbers, and I grudgingly dropped mine to a 7. As I was looking over the other numbers — Andrew still at 9, Marc all the way down to 3, Bethany and Zoe both at 6 — I spotted something, though. It was subtle, hidden in the background, and I had to angle my phone around to catch the light just right before I got a good look at it.
Somehow, Andrew had set it up so that it looked like there was a creepy, black-eyed woman standing over my shoulder in my reflection in the phone. When I tilted the phone, she moved with the image, just like she was actually in the room. It was so convincing, I even looked behind me to make sure, but there was obviously nothing there.
I exited the spreadsheet and looked at my reflection in the phone. Nothing. I clicked Curiosity again, reloading the sheet, and as I did, she reappeared. I examined her more carefully this time, impressed with the detail and reality of the picture. She occupied a specific place in the room, and I could walk all around her. She never moved, but when I got close, I could see the faint rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. Her eyes were solid black from corner to corner, and when I peered closely at her slight smile, through parted lips I could see that behind her teeth was more blackness, as if she were hollow inside.
I waved my arm through the space she should have occupied if she were really in the room, but of course hit nothing. In the reflection, though, I saw the slightest flicker, as if she had ducked aside and returned impossibly fast. Her unwavering stare was starting to creep me out, so I reduced my number to 6 and closed the spreadsheet again, watching her vanish.
“Okay, that was seriously cool,” I texted the group. “Don’t know how you did that, Andrew, but it was entirely worth the 2 points I just spent.”
“Ughhhhh fine I’ll bite,” Zoe responded, followed only a minute later by “Creepy af! Jesus, Andrew!”
“Ha ha, very funny,” wrote Andrew.
“Dude, just take a bow. That’s nice work,” I texted.
“Yeah, got to know how you did that,” added Bethany.
“You guys serious? Drop the game for a second and tell me,” came Andrew’s reply.
“No game drop! But you’re welcome to spend a point to go find out,” mocked Marc.
Things were quiet for almost an hour after that, before Andrew’s next message.
“If you’re seeing what I’m seeing — creepy reflection lady — I didn’t do that. And as far as I know, that can’t be done. Not on any current tech, and definitely not in a cloud spreadsheet showing on random phones.”
I got a private message from Zoe: “You think he’s serious?”
“Can’t be,” I wrote back, but I frowned as I wrote it. I really couldn’t figure out any way that he could have created an image like that, and more to the point, I couldn’t think of why he’d deny it if he did. It wasn’t helping him win Curiosity, and freaking us all out wasn’t Andrew’s style. Marc’s, sure, but there was zero chance that Marc had done this. We’d had to show him how to add the icon to his phone when we started the game. Programming was not his forte.
“Well, now you’re down to 8, suckerrrrr,” Zoe sent to the group. So at least I’d convinced her, if not myself.
* * * * * *
I was weirded out enough to avoid the spreadsheet for a while. I didn’t take the icon off of my phone, but instead of tempting me as it had before, I just felt a vague dread when I saw it. I clearly wasn’t the only one, because partway through the next week, Zoe texted us, “You guys want to just drop the game?”
“Not when there’s eighty bucks on the line!” texted Marc, followed by “But you can drop out. Just go look at the sheet a few more times.”
Bethany replied with a non sequitur: “Guys? Whose idea was this game?”
I started to reply, then stopped. It had to be one of the four of us. I remembered when we set up the spreadsheet, and we were all in the room. But somehow, I couldn’t remember which one of us had come up with the idea.
“Who knows? We were all drunk,” replied Marc.
“No, we’re missing someone,” insisted Bethany.
“Who?” texted Marc. “It’s just the four of us. Has been for years.”
Bethany: “Then why is there eighty dollars up for grabs?”
It’s hard to judge pauses in text, but I could picture Marc making the same face I had moments earlier, when I tried to remember who had suggested the game. “I must have been including myself,” came his uncertain response.
“No. There was someone else. Someone’s been lost.”
Lost. Lost how? If there had been five of us, there would be another name on the spreadsheet. Reluctantly, I clicked the Curiosity icon to see. I held the phone off to the side and at an angle, trying to make sure only the ceiling’s reflection showed. There were four names, just like there should have been — Bethany at 6, me and Zoe at 5, and Marc at 2. As I watched, though, my number changed to 4, and Marc’s dropped to 1.
I closed the sheet quickly and texted Marc. “Are you editing the sheet?”
In reply, he sent me a blurry selfie taken in a bathroom mirror. It showed him standing alone in the empty bathroom, a look of abject horror on his face. “Can you see her?”
“I can see you,” I sent him.
“She’s in the mirror right now. Not in the phone, the real mirror. I’m afraid to look away.”
“Stay there, I’ll come get you,” I texted.
I ran for the door, grabbing my keys on the way. I was in my garage, starting my car before I realized that I had no idea why I was in such a panic. My rent was paid, I didn’t have any plans for the night — so why was I in such a hurry?
Puzzled, I put the car into reverse, planning to figure it out in a minute. When I checked the mirror, though, I stomped on the brakes in terror. The black-eyed woman from the Curiosity sheet was in the backseat of my car, smiling and staring directly into my eyes. She wasn’t alone, either, but I tore my eyes away before I could see anything more, grabbed for the door handle and spilled myself out onto the garage floor, scrambling for the stairs. I slammed and locked the door behind me, panting for breath.
I messaged Bethany and Zoe, fighting autocorrect with my trembling hands to warn them, trying not to look directly at my phone. “Curiosity lady in reflections. Don’t look!”
“Oh Jesus, she is! I can see her in my phone!” Zoe wrote back.
“BETHANY DON’T LOOK,” I sent.
“Typing this looking at the floor,” texted Zoe. “You guys can have the eighty bucks if I can just quit playing!”
Bethany wrote, “Why eighty dollars?”
* * * * * *
So we figured it out at that point. We figured out that Marc and Andrew had been lost, I mean. I don’t know if those were their names, of course, but I have to call them something, and I like those names. I think Marc was strong, a big guy, maybe kind of a lunk but a really good-hearted one. Andrew was kind of nerdy, but not too awkward. Probably had glasses. Maybe that’s why he went out so fast. If she was reflecting in his glasses, he’d be screwed.
As to how we set this off — I still have no idea. We talked about it for a while, I think, but that just made it worse for Zoe, and Bethany and I let the topic drop once we realized it was just the two of us. It was a bad day for both of us when we understood that we must have once had a group chat that we couldn’t remember. It was getting hard to measure bad days, anyway. Neither of us had left the house for some time. I blindfolded myself and spraypainted the bathroom mirror and all of the chrome faucets so I could shower again without worrying about seeing her in the reflection, but I forgot about the towel rack and saw her there when I was drying off.
She wasn’t alone anymore, like I’d noticed in the car. There were three other figures with her, hard to make out in the thin strip of reflection, but they were just as still as she was. But while she was smiling widely, they were all silently screaming.
I spraypainted the towel rack after that, of course, but I was so jittery from the scare that when I picked up my phone to text Bethany and let her know what I’d seen, I dropped it. It landed face up on the floor, my horrified expression a perfect counterpoint to the leering grin of the black-eyed woman leaning over my shoulder, practically touching me.
Bethany and I switched to voice conversations after that, to avoid seeing the phones. At least, I assume we did. I don’t know what Bethany did, but I must have been careful enough. Because I’m sitting at the computer at my house right now, a glare protector on the screen so that it can’t reflect, and right next to my keyboard is eighty dollars.
I think this means I won. I think it’s over. But even if it’s just me now, I remember the rules: everyone can lie.
I’ve counted, though, and I think I’m still at 2. I should be able to check the sheet, to see if I’m the only name on it, and to see if the black-eyed woman has four screaming figures with her now. Then I’ll know if it’s over.
But what if I miscounted?
I’m not going to look.
Wish me luck.
Check out Micah Edwards’ collection of published anthologies and novella, now available on Amazon.com: