Susan Anwin was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. Her flash fiction work, Talk of Armadale Trees, was featured in the anthology My Favourite Place, published by the Scottish Book Trust in 2012. Several of her short stories were published by Aphelion Webzine in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and Susan featured on the cover of Aphelion in March and July 2017 and in February and August 2018. Susan is currently studying creative writing at the University of Aberdeen.
"May I help you?"
The woman, her phone stuck to her ear, was one of those businesswoman-types, discreet although expensive-looking earrings, dark hair smoothed back into a ponytail, flawless designer suit. "Hold for a minute, please." She turned towards the assistant – a nondescript girl somewhere in the middle of her twenties.
"A chicken, a vegan and a beef, all in whole wheat wraps. Can you make it chop-chop, we’re in a hurry." Megan turned back to the phone. "No, Johnny, I told you I won’t be able to hand in the report by Wed. I thought we’ve been through this. I need another three days…"
The same girl took her card at the till.
Megan dropped her phone into her bag. "Took you a while."
Her glasses flashed, as she looked up at her. "Sorry, I’m all alone and it’s the lunch rush…"
"I really don’t think this is my problem. You should talk to your supervisor."
Megan fought her way through throngs of teenagers to the table where her colleagues sat. Her face crumpled in disgust after the first bite from her chicken burrito. "This is cold. Are yours cold too?"
Bill shrugged. "Not the best I’ve ever had."
Marcia rolled her eyes. "Come on, just let it go."
"Marcia, this is cold. Not lukewarm, not partly hot, cold. I will not put up with this shit."
The other two exchanged looks.
She elbowed her way back to the cashier. The girl was serving a bunch of teenagers.
"Hey, excuse me? This burrito is cold."
The crowd was watching her. The girl did her best to ignore her.
"Hello? I’m talking to you! You deaf?"
"You are keeping up the line, lady…"
Megan turned to the guy. He had the look of a tourist, with a silly, colourful hat perched on the top of his head. "Mind your own…"
"You’ll die as fish."
Her head snapped back to the assistant. "Excuse me?"
The bafflement on her face looked genuine. "I said, ‘gimme just a sec’?"
"Come on," someone further down the line called out.
Megan didn’t budge. "That’s not what you said."
Bill pulled her away from the cashier. "We’ll eat somewhere else."
"Bill, I paid for that burrito!"
"You’re my guest for a burger in the joint next door."
He suppressed a sigh. "They have salads, too."
It’d been a long day. She had a lingering feel of guilt over the scene at the eatery, but she brushed it off. You gotta stand up for yourself if you don’t want others to walk all over you. She mixed herself a gin and tonic. A night of reading and listening to music – she more than deserved it.
You’ll die as fish. The glass stopped in her hand. What the fuck was that supposed to mean? Doesn’t matter. Probably just misheard something.
The meeting on Friday drained her. Her report was top notch as always, yet Johnny still found minor mistakes to nitpick over. It was stifling hot in the office due to some glitch in the ventilation system.
"I thought you’d drink all the water from the jugs on the table and then some more," Bill remarked.
"It was a sauna in there. You didn’t feel it?"
It was a rhetorical question, of course. His damp red ringlets stuck to his temples and dark spots blossomed in his armpits. "They say the heat wave should be over in a couple of days."
"It better be."
Megan went into the restroom. She didn’t drink tap water as a rule, but she was still parched. She splashed her face, make-up be damned, then glanced at the mirror, rubbing the nape of her neck.
She opened the tap for one last draught, but her hands never reached the beam of water. She stared at her hand for what seemed like an eternity. The moisture dried on her goose-prickled skin. A wave of dizziness washed over her. The world darkened for a minute and she had to hold on to the sink. She glared at her wide-eyed reflection, taking in the air in small, frightened gasps. It’s not there. I just imagined it…
But it was. A small, round scale.
"She said ‘you’ll die as fish.’ A week later I find a scale on my finger. It was real, Charlie, I wasn’t imagining it. I didn’t eat fish that day. I don’t even like fish."
Charlie chuckled and shook his head. He sipped from the wine, smacking his lips. Megan felt like slapping him. Good thing we aren’t serious. "It wasn’t so funny for me, you know."
He tsk-ed. "Let me take a look."
She knelt by the sofa. Charlie drew the curtain of shiny hair away from the nape of her neck. She held her breath unawares.
"No scales here. Better?"
"Yeah." Although she wasn’t so sure.
The air conditioning still hadn’t been fixed at work. The heat drove her crazy, which resulted in flare-ups with the cleaning lady, the gardener and various colleagues.
"Ready with the financial plan?" Her boss stuck his salt and pepper head in the door of her office.
"Johnny, you’ve asked three times just this week. You’ll be the first to know when I’m done, alright?" She could afford such a tone – Johnny was lost without her.
Megan blew out the air. She needed to cool down now. She went into the bathroom on the third floor. She avoided the one nearest her office since the… accident. Careful not to look into the mirror she drank herself full, wetted the nape of her neck and was about to dry her hands, when a silvery glint caught her eye. Her glance dragged to the mirror almost against her will. The air escaped her mouth with a hiss.
The scales covered the back and the side of her neck. She tried to scrape them off, but all she achieved was bloodying her neck. The sight of the scales opening slightly under the strain made her stomach turn.
Her hair unbound to hide her neck, she went back to the burrito joint in the lunch break. There were two guys behind the counter this time. She went straight to the cash register.
"The end of the line is by the door, lady," a man balancing fizzy drinks on his tray grumbled.
"Just a sec." Megan didn’t look at him. "Listen, there is a girl working here, about this tall…" she lifted her hand to her shoulder’s height, then her words died away. She couldn’t even give a proper description of her.
The cashier didn’t do a good job of hiding his annoyance. "Quite a couple of girls working here, ma’am."
"Do you have an employees’ list? You know, with photos?"
He scratched his net-covered bald head. "This is not the best time…"
"Look, the sooner I can look at that list, the sooner we get done here." She ignored the pointed remarks coming from the line.
The cashier came back with a laminated page. She scanned it with slightly trembling fingers. The girl was not on the list.
"We were here about two weeks ago. She made me a cold burrito… was she fired?"
He shrugged. "This list is refreshed every time there is a change in staff. No-one fired or newly employed in the past month. Now if you don’t mind, we are kinda busy here."
She took off the mirrors in the anteroom and the living room and threw away her powder compact. She’d have to go on without makeup but that couldn’t be helped. She didn’t want to throw away the whole bathroom cabinet, so she just covered its mirrored doors.
"Charlie, do you see anything on my neck?" she asked later that night.
"Not this again! What’s up with the mirrors, by the way?"
He gave in with a sigh. "Nothing, just like the previous twenty times."
He’s lying, Megan thought. Her stomach clenched with panic.
"How can I help you today, Megan?" Dr. Richardson settled in the armchair with a cup of green tea.
Megan stirred her own tea listlessly. "I think something is happening to me. I… don’t even know how to explain without sounding crazy."
"Megan, we are not here to judge or label. ‘Crazy’ is an outdated notion most therapists wouldn’t…"
"Yeah, yeah," she waved impatiently. "I’m seeing things…"
"It’s, uh…" she rubbed the nape of her neck, then caught her hand away when she realized what she was doing. But that gave her an idea. She drew her hair away from her neck. "Can you see anything here?"
Her heartbeat drummed in her ear in the silence that followed.
"What am I supposed to be seeing?"
Megan felt frozen inside. She’s in on it. They all are. "Scales," she said flatly.
"Scales? You see scales on your neck?"
Oh, don’t act like you don’t, she felt like snapping. I need to find another therapist.
Dr. Richardson’s velvety brown eyes searched her face. "When did you see them first?"
Megan didn’t feel like talking about this anymore. She wanted to call Dr. Richardson out on being a part of it. And then she’ll be convinced you are crazy. She wondered if she could be hospitalized by force. You’ll have to act along not to raise suspicion.
"About a month ago. We went to Cheney’s with the guys for burritos, and there was this girl… she's not working there anymore. Don’t know how to find her… she said ‘you’ll die as fish’ or something like that, and the first scales appeared about a week later."
"Why would you want to find her?"
"So that she’d…" she fell silent. Take her curse off me. You know how that sounds, right?
This wasn’t her usual inner voice. It was an unpleasant, smirking voice she didn’t recognize. "To… to talk with her? Clarify this misunderstanding?"
Dr. Richardson took up her clipboard. "Megan, have you heard about autosuggestion? It is a known phenomenon; you are not alone with it. You believe this girl cursed you, and your brain makes you actually see scales on your neck."
"With the right methods you can persuade your brain not to show you things that are not there. Is there a specific time or place when you see these scales?"
"I don’t see how this girl should have the power to get me to hallucinate stuff."
Dr. Richardson glanced discreetly at the clock. "She doesn’t, Megan. Your mind does. Tell me, when do you see the scales?"
"Whenever I look into a mirror." Or at a window, or any kind of reflecting surface, really.
"Can you feel them, when you touch your neck?"
"Are you up for an experiment?" She pulled out a pocket mirror from her purse.
Megan swallowed. "I’d rather not."
"The only way to snap out of this delusion is facing your fears, Megan. The first step is acknowledging the problem. Only that way can you eventually let it go."
She eyed the mirror as if it was a coiled up snake. "You think I’m going crazy, right?"
"I’d rather not use that term…"
"Whatever. I’m not here to argue about semantics."
Dr. Richardson hid the mirror in the shelter of her hands. "I can only help you if you are willing to let me help, Megan."
"You think crazy pills can sedate me to the point where I can’t see the scales anymore? 'Cause let me tell you, I’m more and more willing to give it a try."
"I don’t think they are necessary, Megan." Dr. Richardson looked at her with maddening patience. "You don’t have to do it now. Take your time."
Megan held out her hand for the mirror. She hadn’t seen her reflection for weeks, keeping her eyes on the ground if she walked past windows or buildings with shiny marble covers. So far she managed to snatch her glance away in time when she came across the occasional puddle.
"That’s very brave, Megan."
Oh, shut up, she wanted to scream.
Her reflection was fuzzy from the shaking of her hand. She stabilized it with her other hand.
"What do you see?"
She had no words for what she saw. Her voice was a hoarse croak. "It’s…"
One of her eyebrows was gone and her hair was receding to give place to scales. They covered half of her face. Her left ear disappeared; in its place was a cut that opened and closed to the rhythm of her breath. Her nose began to flatten. The left side of her mouth lost that curve she was so proud of, transforming into a ragged, shapeless cut. Even her left eye was affected; instead of the light green, almost yellowish hue she was born with, it was a round, expressionless silver with no white around the iris.
"This is not me. It cannot be. Why am I seeing this?"
"What are you seeing, Megan?"
She snapped the mirror shut. "Never mind. I’d like to go home now, if you don’t mind."
Summer passed and the weather finally cooled down in the first weeks of October. She stayed in her cottage by the lake. She quit her job – she couldn’t handle going there every day, all her colleagues acting like they didn’t see.
Charlie kept on calling for a while, then stopped. Megan didn’t mind.
She took long baths in the evenings. Always bubble baths, to hide the surface of the water. She held her breath and closed her eyes, locking out sound and sight, submerging in the comforting dark and silence.
She didn’t notice how time flew during these baths… once she got out of the tub and realized that three hours had passed. But if her skin felt itchy and crawly when dry…!
She took off her clothes and walked to the end of the jetty. She sat and swung her legs above the water, not minding the fin flapping in the mirror of the lake. She lowered herself into the chilly water and swam in the soothing, silky darkness. Here she could be truly herself at last.
She went deeper, not noticing or caring about her lungs screaming for air, or the black dots swarming at the edge of her vision. Who needs lungs when you have gills? She opened her mouth and breathed in the dark water.