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One Breath, Two Lives

Sweat gathered. They were just tiny circular beads, clear in color and if alienated, a single one would appear almost invisible. But blended together, piling atop one another in unison, they formed a shallow, shiny-looking pool directly above Rebecca Grainger’s upper lip. The temperature inside the small apartment held at a comfortable seventy-two degrees, little reason for perspiration, but adrenaline surged through the young girl’s veins like a wild stallion.

Just beyond the paper-thin walls and disintegrating insulation, on the side of mortar and brick, record low temperatures froze pelting rain and created an iced land out of Johnson City’s panorama. Although weighted by an arctic encumbrance, power lines wailed against the forceful wind with sluggish spherical whirls. The harsh and impartial wind clattered and banged against the fragile windowpane of Apartment 18B, the place Rebecca had called home for the last nine months. Ice-covered branches scratched and probed with squeaky and crooked fingers, feeling along the casing and the fragile glass with callous enthusiasm. Small fissures in the wooden frame widened, splitting, splintering, growing longer and longer. The air squeezed through the cracks, whistling a faint high-pitched shrill. Small particles of wood and paint spurted and then drifted whimsically to the floor on which Rebecca stood.

With wild eyes, she examined the room. She could feel the others prying at her sanity with their glacial prongs, digging deep into her skull. She could hear their pleas, their demands. She could smell their rancid breath, their unearthly perfume.

In May of the prior year, Rebecca had graduated as valedictorian of the class of 2005, Johnson County High School’s finest. She had received a full scholarship to East Tennessee State University. Now, mere months later, standing in her living room, fingers gripped to the back of the sofa with such force that the skin beneath her nails paled to a ghastly white, all her dreams of success and grandeur seemed like nothing more than a fairytale once read in a bedtime story.

Rebecca tilted her head and listened. She could hear their hisses, their feelers gripping, moving, leaving behind a sticky trail of deception. Overcast skies dominated the entire region giving off the appearance of dusk during midday, but fluorescent overhead lights illuminated the darkest shadow within the small room in which she crouched, enhancing her dampened face.

The shimmering luster created a waxy, almost mannequin-formed expression of horror. Short, panted breaths seemed amplified, superseding the diminutive cries of the intruders. A cloudy film encrusted her emerald eyes, leaving nothing but the appearance of aged moss. Fright manipulated her gaze from ceiling to floor, corner to corner. Rebecca knew they were near. Their faint whispers seeped through each microscopic crevice in the aging structure, crawled along the tiny fissures of the textured wallpaper and slithered across the plush fibers of the carpet with their squishy waterlogged movements.

Backing against the wall, clasping her hands over her ears, she cried, "What do you want with me?"

Their hisses droned a continual hum.

Cowering like a helpless child, Rebecca cradled her knees, tucked her head and squeezed her eyelids shut.

She began to count. "One…two…three…," each number recited with a slow, controlled and calculated whisper.

Upon reaching ten, her overwrought nerves had begun to calm. The tense compress of her eyelids loosened, but remained, for the most part, closed.

Announcing aloud, trying to reassure herself, she stated, "Now, when I open my eyes, you will be gone. You’re not real. You never were."

With a reluctant squint and a gradual rise of her thin eyebrows, Rebecca peered through tiny opened slits across the well-lit room. Gaining a faint sense of security, she removed her hands from her ears and listened with great intent. All was silent.

"You’re not real! Do you hear me? You’re not real!"

After several minutes passed with no response, Rebecca attempted to rise. The back of her calves and knees screamed with discomfort. Supporting her weight by the arm of the couch, she managed to stand, although awkward and somewhat stiff with her knees slightly bent. She took a small step forward.

For nineteen years, Rebecca’s character had mocked perfection, a parental demand pounded into her head since early childhood. Her unblemished existence consisted of numerous academic achievements acquired throughout the years. Various awards to acknowledge her grand accomplishments covered one entire wall. With a heavy stride, Rebecca forced herself to move toward the wall of excellence.

Inch by inch, she absorbed each certificate and plaque as if she were walking through a slide-show depicting the well-maintained path traveled during the course of her short life, a straight paved course, untainted by the obscurity of weeds, but yet, stripped of any memorable scenery. Nothing existed but bland, featureless goals and achievements. Rebecca hesitated, staring an expressionless gaze. She tried to recall just one carefree moment when being a child had meant just that. She frowned. Nothing.

Be the best. Push yourself harder. There is no place for seconds in the real world.

Lashing out against failure and loneliness, Rebecca swatted. The bottom row of frames crashed upon the floor in a heap of splintered wood and shattered glass. The eager creatures clung to the structures of the room, grinning, pleased with the torment and anguish surging through the young girl’s body.

"How could I have let this happen? How?" Rebecca screeched.

An elegant full-length Victorian mirror caught her reflection, beckoning her forward. As if in a trance, without any recollection of walking across the room, Rebecca found herself caressing the smooth surface of the looking glass, cool to the touch, but nevertheless, inviting.

Before her very eyes, youthful skin suddenly lost its elasticity and sagged atop protruding cheekbones. Deep furrows outlined pruned lips, and her once silky blonde hair lost its luster and straggled from her scalp with a dull and unkempt appearance. She gasped, removing her hand for a brief instant and then moved closer to the distorted image.

A shadowy haze began to congregate along the mirror’s edge. Brewing…boiling, like a forbidden stew, it bubbled and toppled the brim. Streams of the acidic liquid poured over the brass casing and trickled to the floor, singeing the carpet and underlying textiles. An omen of malevolence surrounded Rebecca’s reflection in the form of an eerie grayish-blue smoke. Within that foreboding shadow, that ever-increasing envisage of the future, heartless eyes appeared and disappeared, quickly, almost undetectable, hundreds, maybe thousands.

Thinking she saw something, but then again, maybe not, Rebecca jerked backward. She searched the mirror for answers, scrutinizing from every angle. The smoke lessened, the image deepened, and then with a low authoritative tone, it spoke.

"Give him to us!"

Without hesitation, Rebecca replied while shaking her head back and forth very quickly, not from one side to the other in wide sweeps, but more like a bobbing head atop a spring. "No! No!"

Covering her face with her hands, hard-pressed, flattening skin against bone, she ran her fingers upward, gripping hair, lifting scalp from skull. "You can’t have him! Never!"

Fright gave way to desperation. Trembling legs grew weak. Rebecca buckled and fell to the floor. Maintaining a consistent tug, vulnerable roots loosened. Severed strands drooped over her youthful knuckles like wilted wildflowers. With upper body curled atop bent legs, Rebecca rocked. Insanity hovered nearby with anticipation, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

"How could I be so stupid? How?" Rebecca sobbed.

The voices rumbled in response, blurting nothing but unclear garbles, the barrier of Rebecca’s mind a canyon, echoing, bouncing self-abhorrence from wall to wall. But as the words reiterated, they transformed into something audible.

"It’s not stupidity, Rebecca. It’s an honor."

"Honor? All I see is shame," she sniveled, straddling the brink of complete madness, unsure if the voices were real or merely dwelled within the distorted perimeter of her own mind.

"You’re shame will soon produce greatness."

A dark shadow dashed across the room, caught by the corner of Rebecca’s right eye. Disheartened sobs abruptly slammed into the huge knot inside her throat and settled with an uncomfortable lump. She snapped her head to the left, scrambled forward, then whipped her body around and looked behind her. Scurrying, she crawled backward and bumped against the antique mirror. She yelped, spun around, and found herself ensnared by her own reflection once again. Those eyes, those lost and yearning eyes, entrancing, mesmerizing. Held captive, she became a prisoner of her own confinement.

The voices whispered subtly, like a soothing lullaby, calming with an eerie, but assuring tone. Rebecca stroked the reflection. Drawn, like a demon to darkness, she found herself unable to turn away. Soon, her aged reflection shifted and transformed into an entirely different specter, something darker, something evil.

The wavering pools of aged moss sunk deep inside pits of deep hollow cavities and peered back, not with the look of misery, but with a beam of sinister loathing. Sagging skin became taut, swelled with death. The brittle flesh split atop profound cheekbones. Gaping lesions exposed a breeding ground of plump voracious maggots. When the apparition spoke, an eternal darkness funneled just beyond dry and cracked lips, as the rancid smell of rotting flesh chilled the air with its stench.

"Greatness dwells within you, Rebecca. Accept and nurture it".

Rebecca’s legs grew heavy, weighted by fear. She pleaded, her voice nothing more than a quivering whine, "What do you want with me?"

Quaking, dominant voices responded, not the words of one, but of many.

"Your demon seed!"

The words resounded, penetrating flesh and bone, ten thousand swords stabbing with finalization, causing the calming enchantment to loosen its grasp. Backing away from the mirror, Rebecca wrapped her arms around her body, screaming.

"No! No!"

She protected her stomach, her unborn child. A prominent bulge swelled beneath crossed arms.

"Your parents will never have to know what a true disappointment you are, Rebecca. As ...
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