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Painful Secret

Hell in a Reflection

By Kenny PennPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 23 min read
6
Midjourney AI + Kenny Penn

“The mirror showed a reflection that wasn’t my own!”

Silence. Ashley’s gut twists as her friend stares at her in frank disbelief. She needs Molly to believe, but how can she blame her for not? Ashley almost doesn’t believe it herself.

“I know what it sounds like, Molly, but I’m not crazy!” At least, I hope I’m not. God what if I am? How could you tell? The thing about crazy people is that they don’t know they’re crazy, right?

Molly’s face takes on a concerned expression. She reaches out and takes Ashley’s hand in her own, giving it a comforting squeeze.

“Ashley, after all you’ve been through - “

“It’s not that!” Ashley says, and yanks her hand away as if burned. Molly flinches and draws back, making Ashley want to kick herself. There’s no need to get snippy. This is her best friend, after all, not a psychologist.

She’s just so damn tired. It’s difficult to control your emotions when sleep is about as elusive as a fugitive on the FBI’s most wanted list. Sighing, she takes the Starbucks Venti cup off the table and takes a slow deep swallow. The taste helps her take control of her emotions and bring her tone down to a more conversational level.

“I’m sorry, Molly, it’s not you. You’re right, the past few months have been hard. Real hard. But I’m telling you, it’s true. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

“Ok then,” Molly says after taking a deep breath, “what did you see then?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“Try me.”

“Ok, well . . . “ Ashley closes her eyes, clutches the silver crucifix hanging around her neck for courage and leans back against the cushioned seat. She doesn’t want to conjure up that frightful image, but of course she has to. It needs to make sense. “Like I said, it wasn’t me, but it looked a little like me.”

In truth, it looked a lot like her. That’s the most frightening thing. A slightly taller than average woman, twenty-two years old, slim, blonde, and fair-skinned. But it’s the other parts . . . she gives an involuntary shudder.

Molly’s eyebrows draw together and she leans forward. “Ashley?”

“Half of my face, or that face, was melted.” Ashley touches the left side of her face and shutters again, remembering the horror of it. “Only it wasn’t all gone. Strips of it remained, thin and stretched like threads. Like rotted meat. I saw patches of bone and muscle tissue, blood and I think saliva leaked from my exposed chin.” Her hand shook as she ran a finger over her left eye. “My eyeball bulged in its socket as though swollen, red and pulsing.”

“Ok, you can stop now.” Molly says. Her face had gone a little pale. “I’m gonna throw up otherwise.”

“But that wasn’t the worst of it. That was bad enough to give me nightmares for the rest of my life, but it wasn’t the worst. As I stood there, staring, I started hearing this noise. Like thousands of small metal shovels scraping against an earthen pit filled with rocks. It grew louder and louder until I couldn’t take it anymore and I left the bathroom.”

For a moment, Molly keeps silent, as though contemplating or waiting for Ashley to say more. There is more, much more, but nothing Ashley can put into words, at least, not yet. That face, those sounds, were familiar somehow. The knowledge paws at the back of her mind like a giant cat trying to get her attention. But she’s too afraid to give into it.

The far-away look disappears from Molly’s face, and is replaced with the one Ashley always associates with school teachers. It’s the no-nonsense, cool and collected expression they have right before giving a lecture. As though they have all the answers. Ashley has always resented that look but for Molly’s sake, fixes her own face into one of calm.

“Let’s go over the facts.” Molly says, and begins ticking off points on her fingers. “One: three weeks ago, you went through something most people your age haven’t gone through. In fact, most never do. When your grandpa died - “

Acid suddenly seems to fill Ashley’s stomach and she turns her head, not wanting to meet Molly’s eyes. “If it’s all the same to you, I don’t want to talk about my Grandpa.”

Molly gives her a sympathetic smile and squeezes her hand. “I know, Ash. We don’t have to talk about it again, I just want you to acknowledge it. Two: your shithead boyfriend - “

“He’s not a shithead, he - “

“Your SHITHEAD boyfriend,” Molly repeats over her, “decides a week later that now would be the perfect time to take off to Vegas with his friends. Don’t shake your head, Ashley, it was a douche-bag thing to do and you know it. Third, you’ve admittedly had trouble sleeping more than two hours for nearly two weeks now. And last - “

“I’ve been told I might be losing my job because of Covid layoffs.” Ashley finishes, but shakes her head again. “But I’m telling you, Molly, that’s not what it is, people don’t just hallucinate crazy stuff out of nowhere like that.”

Molly shrugs. “But it isn’t out of nowhere. Look, you said yourself you’d zoned out for who knows how long before looking in that mirror. I did a research paper once in college, for psych class, about this state of mind called Hypnagogia. Ever heard of it?”

Ashley frowns. “I don’t think so.”

“But you’ve heard of sleep paralysis, right?” Molly nods and smiles satisfactorily. “I thought so. Sleep paralysis is just one of those things that can happen during a hypnagogic state. Hypnagogia is basically a state of consciousness that occurs between wakefulness and sleep. When someone is in that state of mind, they can experience hallucinations.”

This is exactly what she’d feared. Molly thought she hallucinated the whole thing. Perhaps it’s the truth. It doesn’t feel that way, but what would she say if their roles were reversed? She shouldn’t have bothered asking to meet up here in the first place. Sighing, she scoots out of the booth.

“I’m gonna go grab another mocha. Do you want anything?”

Molly looks like she wants to say more, but only shakes her head. “No, I’m good, thanks.”

#

About an hour later, Ashley pauses outside the door of her two bedroom apartment. Her hand trembles over the doorknob, but the rest of her is still. Head bent and eyes closed, she listens for a moment at the door. Of course, no sounds come from inside. Matthew has gone on his trip, and she lives alone. Don’t be an idiot.

A few hours ago she’d left from here in a cold sweat, shaking uncontrollably and just barely able to stop herself from running down the cement hallway to her car screaming. What she’d seen in the mirror, what she’d heard . . . she shivers, but forces her hand to close on the doorknob.

“Molly’s right,” she says as she crosses the threshold, “I need sleep.” Her voice breaks the silence in the room, and she breathes a heavy sigh. The muscles in her legs are weak, her feet sore. She breathes another sigh as she peels off her shoes and allows herself to sag against the wall. “Just a little and I’ll be good as new.”

But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? She hadn’t been completely honest with Molly about sleep. The fact is she hasn’t slept for more than one hour a night, not two. Right now two would feel like a blessing sent from God.

A loud growl issues from her stomach and she straightens, heading for the kitchen. The apartment is small, barely a thousand square feet, so it doesn’t take long for her to cross the carpeted floors to the smooth wood tiles in the kitchen. There isn’t much in the way of decoration, just your standard granite counter tops, microwave, stove, and fridge.

A single picture has been taped to the fridge door, showing herself and Matthew smiling with Mickey Mouse in Disney World. That day had been full of fun and laughter. He’d been so sweet and attentive, so much so that she was sure no one else in the world could be as lucky as her. It’s one of the best memories she has of him.

She stares at the photo for a long moment before opening the fridge. Was Molly right about him too? No, she doesn’t understand Matthew like Ashley does. He’d planned that trip for months. She was supposed to have gone with him. How could she blame him for still wanting to go? After all, it had been her grandpa, not his . . .

But she shies away from this line of thought, rummaging through the fridge for a snack. There’s not much to choose from. Some old chinese, a half used gallon of two percent milk, a plastic container of leftovers from God knows how long ago, and a nearly empty jar of peach preserves. PB&J it is. We’re eating fancy tonight girls!

She turns to pull a plate from the cabinet, and that’s when she sees it. Hanging above the oven is an expensive KitchenAid Microwave. It’s one of those that has stainless steel siding and a pitch black window. Ashley just cleaned it yesterday and between the steel and glass, it positively shines. In the window, she sees her reflection.

The figure staring back is all Ashley. It’s the staring eyes all around that cause her to gasp and drop the jar of peach preserves to the floor. It gives a dull crack and spreads jam and glass all over the floor, but she hardly notices.

The eyes are not human but bug-like. Round, not oval, completely black except where the light refracts off of the glass-like lenses. She sees herself in every one of them, there must be hundreds. Then that awful sound starts again, a bunch of shovels scraping against rocks. She screams, pressing cold, clammy hands against her ears, and whirls about.

Nothing. The kitchen is the same as it always was. She whirls again, but this time all that looks back at her through the Microwave door is her own face. No eyes, no noise. Ashley shudders, turns, and races from the kitchen, leaving the jam and glass to clean up for another day.

Didn’t want PB&J anyway, she thinks, and pulls her cell out of the back pocket of her jeans. She sends a text to Molly. Sorry, I know I just left you, but can you maybe grab a pizza and come by? I don’t want to be alone.

The response is almost immediate. Pizza Hut, or Elizabeth’s?

#

There’s an envelope resting against the pillow on her bed. Ashley stands at the entrance to her bedroom staring at it. Even from here, she can tell by the elegant handwriting on it that it’s from her mother. She must have come by the apartment while Ashley was out and dropped it off. Goddammit.

It’s her own fault. She should have answered her calls these last few days. But the last thing Ashley wanted was to talk to her mom right now. The things they would talk about would cause too much pain. Too much guilt. Still she supposed she should read it. If she didn’t, her mom would start showing up every day until she could catch Ashley and they had a proper conversation.

Sighing, she walks over to her queen sized bed and picks up the envelope from the flowery comforter. It’s thick and has a certain weight to it, like there are several pages inside. With another sigh, she tears it open and pulls out a card. When she does, several folded sheets of paper fall out onto the bed.

The card is one of those ‘hope you’re feeling better soon cards’. It has a painting of yellow daisies on the front and her mother has written the words, “To my wonderful daughter.” Ashley rolls her eyes and opens the card. The message inside is brief but sends chills running up the base of her spine to the bottom of her neck.

Ash,

The letter inside is from Grandpa James. He wanted

me to give this to you after he died. Made me promise,

actually. I love you, I know you’re hurting inside but

remember that. I’ll give you a few more days before

calling again, to give you some more time, but please,

answer my next call, k? You can’t keep yourself locked

up forever. He wouldn’t want that.

Love,

Mom

P.S. I know what you’re thinking, but I haven’t read

the letter. He told me it was for your eyes alone.

Ashley looks at the folded up paper like it was a viper. Tears well up in her eyes and she fights the urge to run from the room. No, she can’t read that right now. Not when she’s almost certain what it will say. Without realizing it, she swipes away the tears as a wave of self loathing passes through her.

After grabbing a set of silk pajamas and a bathrobe, she rushes to the bathroom and turns on the shower. Some hot water would feel great against her scalp and skin. She could forget about what had happened, get some relief, if only for a few minutes.

As she reaches into the linen closet for a towel, something multi-legged and tiny crosses over her hand.

“Shit!” She yells, yanking her hand back from the closet. The sudden movement throws her off balance but she manages not to fall. Heart pounding, she inspects the top and bottom of her hand, looking for a cockroach or some other disgusting insect, but there is nothing there.

“Ugh!” She says as she shivers, and rubs her arms fervently. Her stomach is suddenly twisting and shooting acid into her throat. It’s a good thing that she hadn’t eaten yet, or there would be vomit strewn across the floor.

Using the cell phone’s flash, Ashley inspects the inside of the closet before grabbing another towel. Tomorrow, the leasing office is gonna hear it from me! She didn’t know what had crawled across her hand, but it felt like a roach. A vision of one of those brown and black things with their wet looking bodies and long wavy antennas sends another wave of nausea through her.

She leaves the closet and strips out of her clothes in a rush. Now she feels dirty and needs to be clean. The water is hot and does feel great. Steam begins to cloud the bathroom as soon as the first drops touch her skin. The sensation is heavenly, like being wrapped in a blanket of purifying liquid. When she’s done, her skin will be as red as the devil’s, but that’s ok. As far as Ashley is concerned, red is the color of clean, not white.

Without warning, the water suddenly goes ice cold and begins to spurt, as if having trouble keeping pressure. Ashley’s surprised scream is immediate and she slaps the shower head away. Holy shit that’s cold! What the hell happened to my hot water? Something else she was going to mention to the leasing office, dammit. For the fortune she pays in rent, she should have plenty of hot water and should never have to deal with bugs.

The hot water doesn’t come back, so Ashley shakes her head and turns off the water. She peels back the shower curtain . . .

And steps into a nightmare.

All around the tub is a scene of decay. The floor tiles are broken and missing, strewn with dirt and old grout green with mold. Something viscous liquid, black and greasy, runs down the walls. Panels of the walls have peeled away from the ashen wooden studs, leaving behind rusted nails and cracked paint. In places where the sheetrock has crumbled, a thick, red substance leaks out. It’s as if the bathroom is dying, or already dead.

Ashley stumbles back against the shower wall, her right hand clutching the crucifix against her chest. The bathroom she came into, which had been scented with a Glade, ‘Hawaiian Breeze’, plug-in, now smells like rotten meat. And that awful sound is back, the grating, metallic, earthen noise louder than ever.

Screaming, she glances up and catches her reflection in the bathroom mirror. As she watches, the mirror cracks at her forehead and travels a jagged path down to the valley between her upper lip. The left side of her face begins jetting blood from a hole in her cheek while yellow mucus drips from her eye.

The right eye seems to twinkle, and it winks at her. The corner of the lip curls upward in an impossible smile before catching fire. Heat burns away the flesh until she sees the grotesque teeth right through the skin.

She hitches in another breath to scream, but it turns into a surprised shout as she slips on something in the tub. She doesn’t have time to see what it is, because the next moment her head strikes the side of the tub and she blacks out.

#

“Please, hunny, for me.”

Grandpa’s voice is so weak, so unlike the grandpa from a year ago. Last year he’d been strong, confident, an unyielding pillar of greatness and good health. To see him like this, with plastic tubes seemingly coming from every orifice of his body hurts like hell.

It seemed they had decided that the holes he had been born with weren't enough either. They had to make new holes so they could put more plastic tubes and needles in him. He looked like a dead man, a cadaver who’d volunteered his body for medical research. Someone the doctors could practice their studies on.

Perhaps the worst thing though, is his breathing. Each rise and fall of his chest is grating to her ears. It's as though there are stones in his chest, rubbing against each other in one of those specialized polishing machines.

“Ashley - “ he starts to say, but she cuts him off.

“No, Grandpa, I can’t.”

His look of patient understanding brings forth a fresh wave of tears to her eyes. She rocks back and forth in the small chair the nurse has brought into the room for her, grinding her teeth and turning her face away. He doesn’t understand what he’s asking. He can’t

“You’re the only one who can, Ashley.” He says, and the belief in his voice, the rock-hard implacable faith there makes his words all the worse.

“No, Grandpa.” She repeats, hating the pleading tone in her voice. That tone tells her all she needs to know about what she will do if he keeps pressing. Worse, she knows that even in his weakened state, he can hear it too.

“Ash,” he says, his voice gentle and soothing, “look at me dear.”

She does, and for a moment what she sees is not an old man in a hospital bed, but the spry, vivacious man she had known all her life. The man who’d taught her to ride a bicycle, who carved tiny intricate animals for her to play with, cooked her meals when mom had to work late and read her bedtime stories.

Mom said her father passed away when she was just a toddler. She had no memory of him, though mom had shown her plenty of pictures of him. But there had never been a hole in her life either. Grandpa filled that role. He had been there through everything. He’d taken her to that father daughter dance when she’d been eight, and saw her off to prom eight years later. Held her when she cried over a scraped knee and when she cried over her first heartbreak.

His stories had made her laugh, his looks of disappointment when she broke the rules made her cry. Grandpa never had to lay a finger on her to get her to do the right thing. He was a man of many words and many experiences. A man who forgave easily and loved hard. Her own knight and protector.

Grandpa was a father to her.

“Ashley, please.”

Gazing into his pale brown eyes, she can feel those barriers breaking down. Suddenly she is angry, the tears streaming down her cheek hot and wet. “Why would I do that, Grandpa?! Why even ask me? Why not mom or Uncle Charlie!”

“You know why, hunny. Your mother doesn’t have the strength. Charlie would do it but he’s not here. I’m not sure he wants to be here. But you’re here, and you do have the strength for it.”

He lays back down on the bed, clearly tired out from the long speech. Ashley grimaces and lowers her gaze. She should’ve had better control of her emotions. Pain fills the back of her throat and she swallows with an audible click. She doesn’t want this, but he deserves her loyalty.

“Ashley, baby. Listen to me. I know this is hard, and if you don’t want to do it, I understand. I love you so much, I just want your last memories of me being in my right mind. But I won’t force you.”

And there it is again. His impending death hovers in the air between them almost like a physical presence. The doctors said he had maybe a week left, two at most. The things that will happen to him at the end are too awful to think about.

Unable to bear it any longer, Ashley pushes the chair away from the bed and stands. She leans over her grandpa for a moment, staring into his eyes, looking for something he will never be able to give. Then she leans in and kisses his stubbled cheek.

“I . . . “ She has to clear her throat and try again. “I’ll think about it, Grandpa.”

#

“Hello? Is anyone home?”

The voice calls as if from across a giant gulf, pulling Ashley from the dark. She opens her eyes, groaning, as somewhere a fist is pounding rapidly against wood. The front door, she thinks, and stands.

She regrets the motion. It leaves her dizzy and disoriented. She touches her forehead and winces. Pain lances from there like a lightning into the backs of her eyes. Her fingers come back wet with blood. What?

More pounding. “Hello? Ash? Are you going to let me in?”

“Coming!” She calls, her voice cracked. She coughs and winces again. It feels like someone has taken a cheese grater to her throat. Like she’s caught a bad case of strep. I need a drink.

The memory crashes home once she steps out of the tub. Looking around with wide eyes, what she sees makes her feel worse. The ugly, decaying scene is gone, replaced by the normal humdrum look of an everyday bathroom. But at the same time, the decay hasn’t left. It’s there, behind what her eyes are showing her, as if the normal scene is overlaid on the real one.

Her chest tightens painfully and she begins having trouble breathing. Attempting to shut out the scene, she squeezes her eyes shut and starts making her way out of the bathroom. One of her toes knocks into something solid and she cries out, but refuses to open her eyes.

The pounding comes again. Harder but slower, somehow more insistent. The door! If she can reach the front door, she’ll be able to leave this hell-hole. The question of sanity can wait for another time. Hell she might check herself into a mental hospital right away. One step at a time.

Something brushes against the smooth skin between her shoulders. It’s hairy and stiff, like the leg of an oversized spider. Yet cold like an old bathhouse in early spring. It moves upward, toward the base of her neck and she finds that yes, she can still scream, despite the pain.

Losing her composure, her eyes fly open and she tries to bolt for the bathroom door. Tries, because the air has thickened to the point where it’s like moving through jelly. Her chest tightens further, her throat narrows, constricting the breathing passages to points no bigger than a large straw.

Is this what Grandpa felt like, in the end? This painful, burning sensation deep in the lungs, the way a muscle burns from overwork? It’s maddening, yet there is an element of satisfaction to it. This is what she deserves, after all, after what she did, and damn what he’d said.

Dark spots begin appearing around in her vision. Some of the spots show the room as it really is, without the overlay of normal on top, like piercing through a moth-eaten veil into true reality. There she sees cockroaches, thousands of them, crawling up walls and over furniture, calling to each other with their silent antennas.

She takes another step, then another. If she is to die in this place, she will die fighting, god dammit. The sound starts up again, shovels and rocks, growing louder with each passing step. Louder, louder. The holes are getting bigger and bigger. The front door is nearly gone, only patches of the veil remain.

With the last of her strength, she grabs the doorknob and turns it. The door swings open easily as she falls backward. Her chest feels like it’s about to explode, and her airway has contracted to the size of mere pinholes. It’s like breathing through a mesh of blankets . . .

Or like breathing through pillows.

In her mind’s eye, she watches herself approach her Grandpa’s bedside. He’s smiling at her, trying to reassure her with his gentle loving eyes. She cries as she pulls both pillows out from under his head and places them gently on his face. His hand only trembles slightly as he touches her arm. He actually caresses it, sending his love and gratitude through that warm touch.

But all Ashley can feel is a deep sense of self-loathing and disgust as she begins to put pressure on the pillows. She bears down with all her strength. In less than a minute, her Grandpa stops caressing her arm and is holding it instead. His grip tightens for a few moments, then gradually slackens before finally sliding off, dropping into the space next to the bed, never to rise again.

Yes, he’d asked her to do it, to save himself, and likely her, from experiencing the horrors that would visit his body in the end. But that didn’t make it right, did it?

“Ashley?! I’m calling you an ambulance, ok? Just hang in there!”

As her vision begins to fade, Ashley thinks of the letter grandpa wrote, and wonders if she’ll ever get to read it. Perhaps she will have a chance to ask him what he said directly in just a few minutes, if heaven is real.

Unless, of course, she’s going to hell.

Short StoryHorror
6

About the Creator

Kenny Penn

Thanks for reading! I enjoy writing in various genres, my favorites being horror/thriller and dark/epic fantasies. I'll also occasionally drop a poem or two.

For a list of all my work, and to connect with me, go to www.kennypenn.com

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Comments (2)

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  • Kendall Defoe about a year ago

    Okay, you got me with this one. Have the whole Netflix movie playing in my head now... Well done!

  • J. Scott Tannerabout a year ago

    Kenny, you have such a way with pieces like this. I felt suffocated just reading the bathroom scene. Great job as always.

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