Penny stood facing the mirror in the staff bathroom. She did not recognize her own reflection.
How is this possible? she thought.
Her heart raced and she began to panic. This made no logical sense to her. If she wasn’t there, who or what was this soulless frame standing before her? And where was her mind then?
She searched the eyes, I must be in there, somewhere! she thought.
But she felt no connection. The hands! The hands were moving but she couldn’t feel them. Oh God, please don’t do this to me! she shouted inside.
She’d experienced this many times before but had always brushed it off as residual quirks from her wild teenage drug years. She further reasoned, Besides, it usually only takes a few moments before I come back to myself, knowing full well that was not entirely true. Regardless, she found it best to go with the flow, not to fight it, as if ignoring a monster under the bed.
Though she could ignore the problem, she could no longer ignore the way everyone she knew faded away in her memory after enough time away from them. She loved the idea of hanging onto friends like her sisters did, but she couldn’t. She often didn’t remember how her friendships started and never how they ended. She had to ask herself if that was just a convenient excuse for being a bad person, sometimes preferring that to the alternative.
Once in a while she would awake to recall someone from her distant past and was so driven to pick up right where she left off that she believed it must be madness that fueled this conduct. Somehow, her emotions for them finally caught up to her and presented themselves like freshly bloomed Christmas Cactus flowers, surprising and full of life at an unexpected time. But she was never able to experience a proper goodbye in real time because a part of her would vanish in those final moments with friends, allowing someone or something else to come in and take over the farewells. Later she would be left confused or hurt. There must be a logical explanation, but in her mind, she simply wasn’t present for any of it. Surely someone must have been. But who? Or what?
From now on, she told herself, she would insist on staying in her body to follow through and manage any and all relationships. It wasn’t until now that she began to fear not only the leaving but the thought of not being able to return. It’s not like she was a stranger to this bizarre concept. Her mother had been someone that often left her body, for long periods of time. She would be replaced by an angry stranger who did not like children, and would explain to Penny at length how she never wanted them. She spoke as if her daughter was her adult contemporary and would not be devastated by that news. This other person was apt to pull hurtful stunts in the guise of teaching lessons, like the time she pressed Penny’s tiny hand on a hot iron while her friend visited and then laughed as her child howled in pain. Or the time she yanked Penny’s skinny arm at the pit, and pulled her up like a ragdoll to hold her hand above the gas burner of the stove, so she’d stop asking her “so many damn questions”, as she put it.
Other times, her mother would surface a very hopeless, depressed older soul that reminded Penny very much of her grandmother. This morose identity would talk for hours about all the problems that she could not fix in her own life, the husband she deeply resented, and the kids she saw as useless, fully transferring the desperation of it all to her daughter’s young mind. Penny knew even then that this was not normal, but she loved her mother and knew in her heart that these body-snatchers were not the real her and should be ignored as much as possible. And it was possible, somehow. Mostly.
Her mother often mentioned how God can take people at any moment. One day, she bent down on one knee, gripping Penny’s arms tightly, shaking her a little. Her eyes pierced with urgency, she sternly warned Penny, ‘I can be taken by God, any time, to my death, so you need to always be ready to live without me’.
Her mother was fairly young and healthy but Penny knew nothing about dying, nor what it took to make it happen. She had learned in school that God was mysterious and no one could know His will, nor should they ever question it. So, she stayed vigilant. She knew death was final, she’d seen it on television and her grandparents had passed. But for many reasons, her mother being taken was her worst fear. They were closely connected by something of a sickness, in a way that was never spoken of but always understood. And by the emptiness in her mother’s face at times, she never doubted the grimness of her own fate. Her future floated in those strange, hopeless eyes.
Many years passed and her mother managed to stay alive, but she continued to leave, like maybe Penny realized she did now as well and had been doing for years. Up until now she convinced herself that friends had been the ones to drift, lovers had moved on but she could no longer feed herself such notions.
Who were these imposters that could take full possession of her body and work all the controls? she wondered. Who could operate her eyes and expressions so genuinely to not be made by the people that knew her so well? Our flesh must simply be puppet-like vehicles for bodiless souls to hop in and drive should we need to take a little leave of absence, she figured.
Carefully washing her hands in the sink of an employee restroom, she slowly came back to herself, feeling the blood rush to her hands and then her legs and feet. Her breath was audible now as she inhaled and her vision came into focus. But this time, so much time went missing, many years had passed. Her face was much older, her mouth downturned, her brow fraught with more worry. Her hair was wiry like those frantic old hens she used to pity as a young girl. She felt a little fuzzy on the rest of the details as she shook the excess water off her hands.
‘Ava. Ava! Are you just coming back from lunch?’ A strange, but slightly familiar girl said to her, breaking the yolk of reality.
Fright struck Penny like lightning, her body stiffened as she processed this foreign name. Ava, Ava, she spoke the name silently in her mind. It raced as her eyes slowly made their way to the mirror again to meet her reflection.
‘Please be me, Please be me’! She thought.
She only allowed herself a quick peak, then nodded to her apparent coworker before running into a toilet stall and firmly sliding the lock shut. Her breath was heavy, “Wake up Penny, Please wake up”!! She pleaded silently inside, now starting to sweat and feeling panicked.
She wiped her brow with her blouse before sitting down on the toilet seat, closing her eyes to concentrate, her hands on her lap, posture straight and deliberate.
“You’re okay, she said to herself, you’re just a little confused”. She took deep breaths then noticed the warm blood rushing back into her hands and then the rest of her body.
Moments later, Ava stood up, unlocked the stall and slowly walked back to her station at the bank.
“Next customer please,” she said firmly.
She watched as an older man calmly made his way to her teller window. Her hand made it’s way across to lightly rub and pinch the skin on her other arm ensuring she would stay present.
“Wait, was I feeling ill earlier? I must have had another one of my episodes after lunch”, she figured. “Yes, I remember now. I had taken a few minutes to gather myself in the bathroom”.
She questioned if she should be concerned about all these mysterious lapses in time she’d noticed lately. She had been so emotionally solid for so long, or so she told herself.
Later, after work, when she was back in her tiny apartment, freshly showered and combing her wet hair in front of the mirror, a faint voice pressed the question, “Have we always been this way?”
“Yes”, someone answered quickly in a warm, motherly tone.
That someone was addressing Penny who was now hunched over, sitting at a table biting her nails and looking frantic. Someone looked around where she could hear a small girl playing jacks quietly on the floor, the rubber ball bouncing off the solid wood. An older woman with red curly hair smoked cigarettes, her face fraught with worry or maybe she was pissed. Next to Penny, there were others in the room. Assorted strangers, all unaware of each other, sitting, awaiting orders to perform and stand guard for their beloved host. But they could not hear or see her, they could only be still and content in the quiet sunlit attic room that exists in a broken woman’s mind.