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The Stranger

Is that you who resides inside?

By Kayla ManeenPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 13 min read
The Stranger
Photo by BRYANFOTO on Unsplash

The mirror showed a reflection that wasn’t my own.

Their eyes looked like mine. Their face—vaguely shaped the same way. But in the heartbeat it took for my brain to take in the image, morphing the features back into my own, I knew, with a tight, sinking feeling, that I had witnessed someone other than myself.

The icy water ran over my wrists as I gazed into my own eyes, finishing washing my hands.

The sounds of breakfast filtered up from the stairs and I allowed them to engulf me as I took the steps two at a time, emerging from the disquiet above into the chaos below.

“But it’s mine!”

“Rattie hit me!”

“Do you want me to call your father? Then stop.

Nothing amiss, here: two little sisters at odds, one harried mother, one toddler brother contentedly watching the scene from his booster seat, one step-father not yet home from his third shift. Check, check, check, check.

One angsty teenaged kid, questioning their entire existence: check.

Only the last one was anything out of the ordinary.

“Jaime, please tell your sisters to behave,” my mother implored me. I scanned her face, wondering if the edges matched up, searching for the flicker of a stranger. Her face didn’t waiver.

“Girls, behave,” I said, and there was the usual amount of harrumphing and complaining, but they gave themselves some distance.

“I’m taking your brother to daycare today,” Mom said, voice strained. The brother in question started waving his spoon in the air. “Miriam is sick.”

“Dang,” I said. “I hope she’s ok.”

My words sounded a little hollow to my ears, a little echoey. Or was I just imagining it?

“Just get yourselves to school on time,” Mom said, fluttering her hands at us, resigned to her fate.

“Let’s go,” little sister number one said, swiftly swatting sister number two on the head and scooting out the door as she squawked.

I took one last glance at Mom, now wrangling toddler brother’s applesauce-splattered spoon away from him as he merrily flung it everywhere, before snatching up my backpack and coat and heading out into the chilly morning.

The girls were back to tousling on the sidewalk, bickering as they strong-armed a pencil case between them.

“Girls,” I said, and they relented.

Watery sunlight was peeking through the clouds, dim yellow rays struggling in vain to warm the gray city streets. I followed my sisters on our usual path to school, the familiar wash of noise and hustle coalescing around us.

A garbage truck thundered by, honking briefly at my sisters’ enthusiastic attempts for it to; creaky old Ms. Rutherford wobbled up her steep front steps, bag after bag of groceries digging into her frail wrists; pigeons flocked from one faded brownstone to another; and, in the distance, a graffiti-adorned train rattled diligently along its tracks, packed full with early-morning commuters.

Nothing was openly amiss, but that pinched, rocklike feeling had settled deep into my lower stomach. I found my gaze lingering on the people who passed by, searching for something I wasn’t quite sure I could recognize.

I deposited my sisters at their school, one block down from mine. Their squabbling faded from my awareness as I joined the small crowd of students moving towards the high school.

Faces of people I recognized appeared like ocean buoys, beacons in the sea of strangers on the street. My stomach clenched as I searched their faces, flicking my eyes from one to another, matching the features to the person, assuring myself everyone was as they’d always been.

Roger Kinney. Caitlin Down. Anesh Greer. Normal, normal, normal. For a brief moment, I allowed myself to believe that perhaps everything was as it was supposed to be.

But as I passed through the front doors and caught sight of my reflection, my heart-rate ratcheted up.

Aneesha, I thought. I elbowed my way through the crowd towards her locker.

And there she was, her back to me, her shiny swath of inky hair cascading down her back like a waterfall. The strands, normally swaying with a sense of ease, seemed to twitch as I drew closer.

I held my breath. “Aneesha,” I said, touching her shoulder.

It was like a blow to the face, when she turned to me. Her normally pretty features were skewed, her forehead and chin jutted oddly, a savage twist to her lips. I blinked, and like a light switch flicking on, her regular face reappeared.

She stared at me with slightly widened, wary eyes. My entire body felt cold. “I—“ I started, but couldn’t finish.

Something flickered behind her gaze. “You too?” she asked in a low voice, serious as I’d ever seen her.

A feeling not quite like relief, not quite like panic welled within my chest. “Yes,” I said, holding onto the ‘s’ for a beat too long, the word curling out like a hiss.

Aneesha nodded grimly. She adjusted the strap of her shoulder-bag. “Let’s find Grinda.”

It didn’t take long. As the first period bell rang and kids shuffled off to their classes, Aneesha and I discovered our friend, Miranda ‘Grinda’ Grindare, splashing cold water onto her face in the first-floor girl’s bathroom.

When she looked up and her eyes met mine in the mirror, a sound rose in my throat and wedged itself there.

A pitiless void stared out of her eyes, so black and fathomless I felt like I was pitching forward into it. In the span of a single heartbeat, I felt the world as I knew it crumble away beneath me.

“This is so fucked,” Aneesha hissed, snapping me back to myself. Grinda’s eyes, now turned worriedly toward her, were back to their normal blue.

I could hear my blood pulsing in my ears.

“Jaime, what are you doing in here? You can’t come in here anymore,” Grinda was saying, confused.

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Aneesha said impatiently. “There’s an issue we need to sort out.”

I waited for her to say it. For her to put words to the freakish things I’d been seeing all morning. To confirm that it wasn’t all in my head.

Aneesha opened her mouth to speak but abruptly stopped when another girl waltzed into the bathroom.

Claire DaWitt, another Junior we all vaguely knew. She started when she saw me, pausing in the entryway, confusion and surprise clear on her face.

“Oh—hi, Jaime,” she said uncertainly. If my focus wasn’t wholly elsewhere my face would have heated up. Claire glanced past me, noted the other two girls, then, her own face flushed with embarrassment, awkwardly backed away.

“I’ll just use another one,” she said, and bowed out.

Aneesha huffed a sigh and strode past me to close the bathroom’s entrance door.

“Ridiculous,” she muttered, latching the lock.

“Well—not really,” Grinda said, looking at me for backup. “I mean—Jaime’s transitioned.”

“Still,” Aneesha said savagely, coming back to stand between us.

“Why are we seeing things?” I burst out, the feeling of something lodged in my throat finally breaking free.

It took me a moment to realize Grinda and Aneesha were staring at me.

“Seeing things?” Grinda asked.

I suddenly felt very, very cold.

“Aren’t you…?” I trailed off, seeing the looks on both of their faces.

They had no idea what I was talking about.

“You’re seeing things?” Aneesha asked, with the air of someone grimly trying to steady a soldier before battle.

I searched her face, looking for a flicker of that grotesque stranger from earlier.

“What kinds of things are you seeing?”

“I’m—it’s not—I think it’s just stress,” I said abruptly. I could feel my pulse quickening.

“Well, it makes sense to be stressed, but we can’t let that affect us now,” Aneesha said, swinging her head around to include Grinda in this edict.

“I’m fine,” Grinda said, holding up her hands.

“I think we just need to shake off the night,” Aneesha said decisively. She stalked over to a sink and rubbed at the eyeliner under her eyes, fixing any smudges. Grinda and I glanced at each other.

“Remember what we said before,” Aneesha said, her words carrying an invisible, added weight. I forced myself to meet her eyes in the mirror, half-worried what I would see reflected back.

“It’s all gonna be ok,” she said, and her eyes—normal, unassuming—burned into mine.

“But what if there are side effects?” Grinda asked, to which Aneesha immediately scoffed.

“That’s not how this works,” she said, though her eyes did flick towards me. “If anything,” she conceded, talking directly to me now, “any after-affects you feel will be gone within a day. It would only be because you were the reason for doing the spell; you’re clearly not the subject.”

“That’s promising,” Grinda muttered.

I continued to breathe and quietly try to settle my heart.

“No guilty consciences,” Aneesha declared. She locked her gaze onto mine, and I felt the faint throbbing of a headache beginning in my temples. “There is nothing to be guilty of.”

With that, it seemed that our little powwow was over. I followed Aneesha out of the bathroom on stiff legs, avoiding glancing again at Grinda, who I could sense was feeling at least somewhat similarly to me.

We broke off in the hallway, going towards our respective first periods, the halls completely empty now that all other students were in class.

My footsteps seemed to echo louder than they needed to as I made my way to Honors Biology.

I carefully avoided looking at my peers as every eye turned to me when I cracked open the door. Mrs. Teeter didn’t pause her lecture, just glanced at me over her glasses and gave a brief nod. I slipped in and took my seat.

“What’s up?” Aiden Ashbury whispered next to me, angling his body slightly closer. A strong waft of his drugstore cologne assailed my nostrils.

Unbidden, an image of Aneesha quivering and twitching, her eyes rolled back into her head, gripping my wrist in a death drip as blood trickled down her face popped into my mind.

“Bloody nose,” I whispered back. The smirky smile that graced Aiden’s lips flickered.

“Aw man, that sucks,” he muttered. He hunted around for something else to say, but I leaned away from him, keen to distance myself from both his scent and my memories from last night.

The teacher put a slide on the projector and flashed an image onto the whiteboard.

Tiny clusters of circular holes overwhelmed the space. Several classmates cringed away, one or two of them openly groaning.

“Settle down, we’ve talked about this,” Mrs. Teeter said, exasperated.

Unlike my classmates, I couldn’t look away from the image. The dotted holes, technically part of a mollusk, spattering across the creature’s surface. Dark little spots—the color of blood.

There was a pressure building in my chest.

“Once you’re done identifying, we’ll move on,” Mrs. Teeter said, her voice sounding a tad bit farther away.

I scribbled something down in my notebook, barely seeing it. I could feel my blood pressure rising—my pulse was throbbing in my ears, my arms, my temples. I wondered briefly if this was an after-effect of what we had done.

The image on the projector switched. Now tiny, gelatinous-green box-like shapes were stacked haphazardly on top of each other. This one was easy—I quickly started identifying the parts of the plant cell.

As I did so, I felt rather than saw Aiden shift, a waft of his cologne cloying the air around me.

“I know what you did,” he rasped in my ear.

“What?” I flinched, jerking around in my seat.

Aiden’s eyes widened. “Can I—borrow a pen?” he asked.

I blinked at him. I felt the eyes of several of the others around me. Mrs. Teeter looked towards us and frowned.

My heart hammered in my chest.

A soft knock came at the door and one of the principal’s aides slipped in. I tried to ignore him as he slunk over to quietly speak to Mrs. Teeter.

I reached into my bag with slightly shaking hands and pulled out a pen.

“Here,” I said, passing it over to Aiden.

“Thanks,” he said, still eyeing me with a fair amount of quizzical reserve. I remembered that Aiden had been hinting at me for weeks since I’d made my official transition, telling me in no uncertain terms that he would ‘100% date a trans dude,’ like he expected to receive explicit praise for the announcement.

From the front of the room, Mrs. Teeter gasped in shock, her hand flitting to her mouth.

I diligently continued taking notes.

“And they’re…are they sure?” I heard our teacher whisper.

I was too focused on the page in front of me to hear the response.

There was something gathering within me, behind me, just out of reach. A foggy, impenetrable, dark mass. Looming.

I heard a shuffling and then a door close. I felt a beat of stillness from the front of the class.

“I have an announcement,” our teacher said, her voice quavering slightly. Around me, my fellow students perked up. I gripped my pen tighter in my hand, finding myself quite unable to look up from my over-traced writings of chloroplast, ribosome, nucleolus.

“I’m afraid it’s…terrible news.”

Lysosome, cytoplasm, endoplasmic reticulum…

“This is not the way we wish to tell you, but you’ll either hear it from us or the news,” Mrs. Teeter continued, her voice both ominously loud and coming from somewhere far, far away.

“Your classmate—Derek Christensen—has perished.”

The dark flood crashed down upon me, drowning out the gasps of shock.

My vision blurred. My heart stilled. I felt the phantom hands of Grinda and Aneesha clutched between my own as we chanted a spell for revenge on human hate crimes.

“I don’t want to be telling you this,” Mrs. Teeter intoned, “but the news will tell you anyway.”

There was a beat. The entire class held its breath. I traced Golgi apparatus on my paper.

“Derek Christensen was murdered.”

I clutched my pen so tightly it hurt as the class burst into quiet mutters.

An image of Aneesha’s burning eyes filled my mind.

“That’s wild, right?” I heard Aiden saying. “Guy was a giant dick, but—aw, c’mon!” The girl next to him had smacked his arm.

Mrs. Teeter was saying something about an assembly later, something about a tip line we could call.

But all I could hear was the thundering, the pounding in my head.

I excused myself to go to the restroom and stalked on wooden legs down the hall, bypassing the bathroom entirely and instead aiming for the English department.

My reflection in the window panels of the doors I passed was nothing but a dark smudge.

My heart thumped to the beat of my footfalls. Thumped to the beat of murdered, murdered, murdered, playing on an endless loop inside my head.

Perhaps it was sixth sense. Perhaps it was something more. Aneesha slipped out of her language arts classroom before I could reach her door.

Her eyes locked onto me. For a split second, her face was hideously grotesque—a demon trying to force its way out from the inside.

“Let’s talk,” she said, normal once again, moving towards me as though we could still pretend to be the people that we once were.

I followed her mutely into the bathroom.

“So the spell didn’t murder him,” she said bluntly, carelessly, as though talking to a child. “Magic can’t do that.”

“Magic can’t do anything,” I said through numb lips. “But people can.”

Aneesha stilled, watching me.

I remembered the look of ecstasy on her face when she threw her head back, face covered in the blood oozing from her own nose, the glittering darkness in her eyes when she chanted about revenge.

Our combined intentions might have brought Derek some bad luck. They might have made him miss his bus, made him trip over a crack in the sidewalk, made him flunk a random algebra test.

Made him be struck down with remorse for bullying a trans person.

What they would not have done was killed him.

“He was bullying you,” Aneesha hissed, and this time I didn’t think I was imagining the darkness that glittered in her eyes.

“What have you done,” I whispered. The dark waves of horror, of guilt, threatened to pull me under.

“I didn’t do anything,” she said, her face hard, eyes blazing. “Derek reaped what he sowed.”

There was an icy pit in my stomach.

“We’re not responsible for this,” I said quietly.

“No,” Aneesha said, seeming eager to have me on board. “This was just his karma, his karma for being bad.”

“No, Aneesha,” I said, my voice surprisingly gentle. “Grinda and I are not responsible for this.”

Aneesha stiffened, and in my mind’s eye, I could see it all very clearly. Aneesha, high on the symbolic spell, grabbing our ritual athame and stalking through the night to Derek’s after-school job. Waiting for him to appear alone, and, using the vengeful fire that was raging through her body, taking away the one thing that would ensure that Derek never bullied me, or any other trans person, ever again: his life.

I knew this had to be somewhat close to the truth; I’d noted the missing athame. And I’d had a sinking, sinking feeling about the dangerously malicious look in Aneesha’s eyes as she set off that night.

Hadn’t I known, deep down, she wasn’t going home?

“He was a terrible person, J,” Aneesha insisted, with not a trace of remorse. “People like that—they have no right to exist.”

I stared at the stranger in my friend’s eyes, wishing suddenly that we had conjured a demon, or a spell, or something outside of ourselves that had possessed her, possessed all of us, into doing what we did.

Reality was a tough pill to swallow.

I didn’t know when I decided to move, only that I found myself pushing through the bathroom door and striding down the hall, which now had pairs of teachers speaking in huddles.

Some glanced at me briefly but didn’t pause in their hushed conversations, no doubt discussing what on earth could have happened to such a promising boy, with his life all ahead of him; such a tragedy to happen under our school’s roof.

All I felt was numb.

I paused at the entrance to the school, wondering if my legs would carry me out; out into the watery winter sunlight. Beyond the doors, through the windows, I could see the officers that were collating in the parking lot, preparing to ask us high schoolers if we had any inkling as to why someone would do such a heinous thing to a teenaged boy.

I focused in on the reflection of my face in the window. My image flickered, hazy around the edges. The shape of my features not quite matching up.

For a split second, I imagined my eyes reflecting back the darkness that Aneesha’s had. They wavered there, caught somewhere between darkness and light.

I strode through the doors without a second thought.


About the Creator

Kayla Maneen

Truthseeker. Storyteller. Heroine of my own adventure. I’m a study of contrasts—an ouroboros eating her own darkness to spit out the light. Pain and hope exist within us, reflected in our stories. Read a few that I’ve created for you.

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