Disintegration - by C.J. Jessop
Published in Roadworks: Tales From the Hard Road #13 - 2001
Soft light filtered through the curtains along with sounds of birdsong. Sal groaned. It would soon be time to get up. An edgy fluttering in her stomach had kept her awake most of the night, and she had no idea why. Everything was as it should be. She had never been happier. But the feeling remained and even the familiar rhythm of Steve’s breathing beside her failed to bring reassurance.
She sat up, seeking comfort in her surroundings. The race-car alarm clock that the kids bought Steve last Christmas said six-thirty. Deep scratches in the oak closet door had been there since they moved in, six years ago. Bright, flowery curtains fluttered in the breeze from an open window. They were too short, but matched her favourite bedspread, so she had added lace to the bottom to make them reach the sill. She went on like that for some time, cataloguing every familiar item in her memory, but could not shake the dread.
Steve had pulled the covers tight around his neck, as he always did. Watching the rise and fall of his shoulders, Sal curled up against his back and tried to let the slow, almost hypnotic rhythm soothe her. Perhaps she had been dreaming before she woke. She could not dredge up any memory of a dream, but then she rarely remembered. Nothing else made sense; it had to be a dream—a nightmare—and only the anxiety had survived waking.
She pulled back the covers and swung her legs to the floor. Time to be up and about. The hour before she left for work was her alone time, before Steve and the boys rose. No point in wasting it by lying in bed wide awake. Yawning, she crossed the room and reached to grab her robe from its hook on the back of the door. From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror above the dresser, and she stopped, arm stilled in the act of reaching for the robe. Slowly, heart stuttering, she turned to face the mirror.
An attractive face stared back at her, lean and lightly tanned, with wide brown eyes and a full mouth. Short, dark, sleep-ruffled hair softened the angles. All in all, it was a pleasant face.
But it was the wrong face.
Sal’s face—the face she saw in her mind when she thought of herself—was pale, dappled with a thousand freckles and lit by eyes the colour of spring grass. Hers was a long face, surrounded by wiry auburn curls that never went the way she wanted. This face, pretty as it was, did not belong to her. She shook her head, and the woman in the mirror did the same, slender fingers reaching up to brush dark hair from the wrong eyes.
She must have cried out, or made some kind of sound, because Steve sat up in bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with his knuckles.
“What time is it?” He yawned, stretching his arms out sideways.
“Just after six-thirty.” Sal turned away from the stranger in the mirror, fixing her gaze on Steve’s familiarity. “Do you notice anything different about me?”
He cocked his head, clear blue eyes inspecting her from head to foot, then back again. “No, love. I’m sorry, whatever it is you’ve had done, I can’t tell. But you look lovely, as always.”
“I haven’t had anything done.” Sal could not keep her voice from wavering. “I haven’t had anything done at all.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
She bit her lip. What was she going to say? That she had the wrong face? He would think her insane. He obviously recognised her as his wife, but which face did he see?
“What do I look like?” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“What do I look like? Describe me. Tell me what you see when you look at me.”
“Just humour me.”
Steve sighed and raised his eyes to stare intently at Sal’s face. “You have short dark hair, lovely brown eyes, tanned skin and a gorgeous smile. Now what’s this all about?” He took her hand and tugged, but she held back.
“I … it doesn’t matter.” She pulled away from him and grabbed the robe, purposefully avoiding the mirror. “It was probably just a dream or something, forget it. Go back to sleep.”
Wrapped in the robe’s soft fleece, she hurried into the bathroom. Inside, she closed the door and leaned against it, shaking. She had almost convinced herself that the face in the mirror was some kind of hallucination, but it seemed that the face in her mind was the illusion. It must have been a dream—there was no other rational explanation—but it had seemed so real, and still did, despite Steve’s description.
Sal told her friend Alice about the incident over lunch in the break room.
“It’s obviously a sign of discontentment.” Alice took a sip of her tea and pointed a tapered, perfectly-manicured finger at Sal. “You, my dear, are bored with your life and it has come out in your dream. You wish you were someone else, so you dreamed you were someone else.
“Rubbish.” Sal almost choked on her coffee. “I’m perfectly happy.”
“Really?” Alice raised a well-plucked brow. “Are you sure? It can’t be easy holding down a job and caring for a family.”
“It isn’t,” Sal agreed. “But it’s worth it. I go to bed exhausted every night, but I enjoy my work and I love my family. As far as I’m concerned I’m having my cake and eating it. How many women can say that?”
“Sounds heavenly.” Alice took another sip of tea.
Sal rolled her eyes. “I know what you’re thinking. That I wish I was like you, out clubbing every weekend, wardrobe full of designer gear and a car that cost almost as much as our house. Well I don’t.”
“Don’t you?” The eyebrow rose again.
Sal shook her head. “No. I don’t. It might seem unbelievable to you, but I love being a working mother. I love finding toy cars in my briefcase and telling bedtime stories. I love quiet nights in with my stay-at-home husband. You’d find it all too boring, I’m sure, but that’s the whole point. You wouldn’t want to be me, and I wouldn’t want to be you. Or anyone else for that matter.”
Alice laughed and held up her hands . “Okay, okay. You’ve made your point. So where do you think this dream comes into this perfect life of yours?”
Sal shrugged, unable to find the words to express the way she felt about the dream. She was still not totally convinced that it truly was a dream. Hours later, she could not rid herself of the idea that the face in her mind was the real Sal.
She looked away, trying to think of some way to change the subject, and caught sight of a woman standing near the door, staring right at her. The woman wore an expression of disbelief. Sal stared back, wondering what was wrong. Then she realised.
“It’s that face.” She gripped Alice’s wrist. “That woman by the door. She has the same face as the one in my dream. The one I thought was mine.”
“The one right next to the door, with the auburn ….” The woman was gone. “She was there. I saw her. You don’t believe me, do you?”
“I believe you saw someone who looked like the face from your dream.” Alice patted Sal’s hand. “Come on, sweetie, what do you think this is? Invasion of the Body Snatchers?”
Sal lowered her gaze to escape the pity in Alice’s eyes. She knew all too well how ridiculous it all must sound, but could not rid herself of the image of that face.
Thursday was Sal’s turn to close the office and it was already dark when she parked the car and hurried up the path to her home. Steve would have already bathed the kids and they would be playing in their pyjamas, waiting for her to tell them a story. An image came to mind as she unlocked the door, of two almost-identical fair-haired boys, fighting to keep their eyes open while she sat by their beds and told them the stories she had always loved.
“I’m home!” She hung her coat on the hall stand and placed her briefcase on the table, kicking off her shoes.
“Up here,” Steve called, and as she climbed the stairs, he appeared at the top. “They’re in bed, ready and waiting.”
“Looks like you had a fun time.” She laughed, pointing out the dark patches on his pale blue shirt. “You should wear an apron.”
“A plastic raincoat might be better with those two.” He grinned. “Who can wet daddy the most seems to be their favourite game these days.” He paused to put his arms around her waist and kiss her cheek. “You go and tell them the latest instalment while I finish dinner.”
Sal held on for a moment, relishing the warmth of his arms around her, breathing in the safe, comforting scent of him. She thought back to what Alice had said earlier and shook her head. There was no way she would swap any of this for the single life. When he let go and moved around her to go downstairs, she felt almost bereft.
Get a grip, Sal. Shaking her head, she pushed open the twins’ bedroom door and laughed softly to see that they had pulled their covers over their heads.
“Oh dear,” she said, loudly. “I was going to finish the story of Peter Pan tonight, but there’s no one here.”
Muffled giggles came from within the covers, before both comforters were thrown back at once. Sal thought her heart would stop, such was the tight pain in her chest as she found herself staring at two almost-identical dark-haired girls. Two pairs of wide brown eyes watched her expectantly. She bit back a cry of denial. These children must be hers, she tried to reason, crossing the room to get the book from the dresser. They looked too much like the woman in the mirror to be anything but her children. Yet, she could not even bring their names to mind.
She forced herself to open the book and sit on one of the beds, hoping that by reading to the girls she would recall other such times, and with those memories would be all the rest. Concentrating on the words was difficult—she kept looking up to see if the two girls had miraculously changed into the boys she seemed to remember so well—but she eventually finished the chapter. By then, the girls were both asleep and she closed the book, looking from one child to the other, trying to access the memories she knew must be there. Somewhere.
In every memory she tried to bring back, like their first words, or their first steps, she saw the two fair-haired boys. Eventually she gave up and leant over to kiss each of them goodnight, trying desperately to ignore the notion that she was betraying her real children.
Instead of going downstairs, she took a deep breath and went into the bedroom she shared with Steve. At the bottom of the closet, behind all her shoes, was a battered old shoebox fastened with a dusty white ribbon. The ribbon was from her wedding bouquet, and she stroked the soft, shiny fabric with her forefinger before untying the bow. She lifted off the lid and took out a small photograph album, which lay upon a pile of letters and keepsakes.
Two tiny white hospital wristbands caught her eye and she lifted them out too, reading the names. Ellen Stead and Naomi Stead. Were they the names of the two dark-haired girls? She opened the album, turning the pages with trembling fingers. There were many photographs of the woman in the mirror, and of Steve and the two girls. In one, taken in the hospital, she smiled with motherly pride. Another, taken in the park, showed her and Steve pushing strollers. Later ones showed the girls at they were now, and in every picture the woman in the mirror—the woman she was supposed to be—smiled out at her with a happiness she wished she remembered. Looking through the album was like looking into the life of a stranger. Where were the memories that accompanied these photographs?
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she closed the album and placed it back in the box.
As she left the bedroom, Steve appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “Dinner’s on the table.”
“Won’t be a minute.” She stepped into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face. Steve must not see her upset. He would want to know why and she was not sure she could explain.
When she sat down at the table, she had just about calmed herself. She poured a glass of wine. Steve joined her, holding out his glass for her to fill.
“You look pale,” he said. “Are you feeling ill?”
Sal avoided the questions in his eyes by staring into her glass. “I think I’m coming down with something.” She shrugged. “I’ve been feeling out of sorts all day.” It was not exactly a lie.
She avoided his gaze by looking at her plate. On seeing the steak, she almost gave up all pretence of calm. She raised her head, searching for the glimmer of humour in his eyes that would tell her it was all a practical joke. Steve knew she never ate meat.
“Go on,” he said through a mouthful of food. “I cooked it just the way you like it.”
She stared at the steak, trying to fight the wave of revulsion that shivered through her. Maybe she let something slip this morning about the incident in the mirror. Maybe Steve borrowed the kids from somewhere and cooked her steak just for a laugh. But it wasn’t funny. And Steve wasn’t mean. She cut into the steak, and the bloody juices that flowed onto the plate dissolved the last of her courage.
“I’m sorry,” she said, as calmly as she could manage. “I can’t eat this.”
She shook her head, rising from the table, hand over her mouth. The disappointment in his eyes told her this was no practical joke.
“I don’t feel well,” she said. “I’ll go lie down for a while.” Steve rose, but she waved him down. “No, you finish your dinner. I’ll probably feel better after a little sleep. Wake me in a couple of hours.”
He called after her, but she ignored him, running upstairs to the bedroom. Once there she closed the door and put out the light. She stumbled to the bed and lay down with her face in the pillow to quiet the heavy sobs that wracked her body. Whether they were for the woman she thought she was, or the memories she had lost, she had no idea, but once she let them come they would not stop.
She must have fallen asleep eventually, because when she opened her eyes she had dreamed, and for once she remembered every detail. The dream was about her husband. They had made love, and it had been so vivid she recalled every touch, each kiss and caress. The warmth of his arms still lingered, and when she closed her eyes the tender expression on his face made her smile.
Sal switched on the light and began to undress. She would take a bath, and then go downstairs and tell her husband about the dream. Perhaps intimacy might bring back some of her memories. When she approached the mirror, she tried not to be afraid, but it was all still so wrong. She did not remember the large, dark mole on her right breast, and her appendix scar was gone.
The door opened and she grabbed her robe to cover herself as a man came in. He was smiling, asking if she felt better now, but the smile disappeared when she began to scream. This was not her husband.
“Sal? What’s wrong?” He held his arms out to her.
She stumbled back. “No! She could not stop the word once it started. It filled her mind and she could hear her own voice screaming it, over and over but could not stop. Not when the man grabbed her by the shoulders. Not when he squashed her against him and put his arms around her. Not even when he left the room. She was still screaming when he came back with another man, and when the other man put the needle in her arm.
When Sal woke again, she could not hear the word anymore. She heard other things though, things that frightened her. Footsteps echoed close by, and the murmur of voices surrounded her. Someone was crying. Nearby someone sang in a monotone, and further away someone else shouted and swore. Sal opened her eyes and tried to sit up, to see where she was. She could not move. Her arms and legs were held down by some kind of straps, and there was one around her head. The band round her head was not tight enough to prevent her from turning, though.
In the next bed lay a woman with pale, freckled skin and a long face with green eyes. Her wiry auburn curls were damp with sweat. A scream filled Sal’s mind and she opened her mouth wide to let it out as the woman in the next bed did the same.