In a Mirror

By Kim Fryer

Libby ran her hand over the viewer on the kitchen table, shivering in spite of her wool sweater. "Can I move the viewer someplace else if I want?" she asked the paralegal.

"Well, yeah," said the paralegal, a tanned young woman wearing a sleeveless cotton dress. She frowned at the compact video screen -- roughly the size of a notebook computer. "But you'll pick up more alternates in places where you spend a lot of time." She closed the tool kit that she had used to set up the viewer. "Want me to show you how to use it now?"

"What's going on?" Roger interrupted in a quiet voice from the kitchen doorway.

Libby glanced at her husband, a tall, portly man with yellow rings under the arms of his white dress shirt. Her gaze slid to the clock on the wall beside the doorway. "I'm sorry, honey. I didn't realize it was so late."

Roger gestured at the video screen. "That's a viewer, isn't it?" His face was expressionless.

The paralegal looked from one to the other. "If this isn't a good time--"

"No, no," Libby said to her with a smile. "Let's finish." She came over to Roger and laid her pale, thin hand on his chest. "Dana is a paralegal with Mr. Tandor's office. Mr. Tandor will take my case if I can find something on the viewer."

"Didn't we agree we weren't going to do this?" Roger asked. He looked weary, with dark shadows under his eyes. "It's too stressful."

"It's okay. Come look at the viewer." Taking his meaty hand, Libby led him to the table.

"It's pretty easy to operate," the paralegal told Libby. "Turn it on here" -- she pointed to the switch -- "and adjust the tuner like so. You should be able to pick up at least a dozen alternate worlds and maybe more."

"I thought the likelihood of finding Earths identical to this one was high," Roger remarked, his voice flat.

The paralegal flashed him a sympathetic smile full of white teeth. "There's always some differences, so there's always a chance." Handing Libby her card, she said, "Please call me if you find a world where you" -- her eyes flicked over the colorful turban that Libby wore -- "haven't had the fertility treatments and you haven't . . . become ill."

Libby smiled. "It's okay to say ovarian cancer." Roger made a small sound and Libby looked up at him. "Not using the words gives them too much power," she added.

A pained expression crawled over Roger's face. "Isn't there something else we can do? Something besides the viewer?" he asked the paralegal.

The paralegal shrugged. "There've been studies, but no conclusive ones that prove a link between super-fertility treatments and developing . . . cancer. So we need something more to show the connection if we're going to file suit against the clinic that treated Libby." She made an adjustment to a dial on the viewer, turning the screen toward Libby. "Be sure that this dial is set here, so the viewer will record what you see and hear through your alternate selves."

Roger looked at Libby. "Are you sure?"

Libby patted his arm. "A settlement would mean you wouldn't have to work a second job to keep us afloat. And you'd have the money when . . . when things take their course."

"Libby," Roger said in a strained voice. "I don't care about money. Only you."

Libby looked away. "The fertility clinic has to take responsibility for all those drugs they kept pumping into me, or else the doctors will keep doing it to other women." She raised her chin, trying her best to give him a confident smile. "Don't worry, honey. I can handle this."

Libby waited until Roger had left for work the next morning before she sat down in front of the viewer. She chose the kitchen to view, since that was where she spent much of her time. Before she fell ill, she'd run her small catering company from this kitchen. When her energy levels dropped too low from the chemo to continue the business, Libby drew comfort from the copper pots hanging from a beam and the rows of spices in large, clear bottles, arranged in alphabetical order on the faux granite counter. Sitting at the butcher-block table, she used to plan how she'd relaunch her business, but lately she was too tired to do even that.

Libby took a deep breath and flipped on the viewer. As Dana had told her it might, her screen showed only static. She played with the tuner for several minutes without success. She was about to take a break when the screen resolved into a picture.

She saw a kitchen that looked exactly like hers, from the industrial-sized, stainless steel refrigerator to the double ovens, side by side. The viewpoint didn't change for several long minutes. Libby knew she wouldn't be able to influence the other Libby -- she'd only see and hear what her alternate self did. And apparently this other Libby wasn't doing too much, just staring at the pots and pans.

The phone rang, and Libby welcomed the chance to get away from the viewer. She got up and went over to the phone by the refrigerator. She picked up the receiver and heard a dial tone. Her phone wasn't the one ringing. Libby looked back at the viewer.

The viewpoint moved to the refrigerator too as the other Libby slowly walked to her phone. She picked up the receiver, and Libby saw the other's frail hand, paper skin stretched tight over bones, topped with short, broken nails. Libby wanted to look away, but couldn't. She felt nauseous.

The other Libby glanced at the reflective surface of her metal refrigerator, and Libby saw the woman's skeletal face, the inky circles ringing the eyes, making them appear sunken, and the fragile skull devoid of hair.

Her hand over her mouth to keep down her rising gorge, Libby ran from the room.

When Roger came home late that afternoon, Libby was sitting at the kitchen table, cupping her lowered head in her hands, the darkened viewer in front of her.

"What's wrong, Libby?"

Her back stiffened, but she didn't look up. "I'm fine."

Roger put his hand on her shoulder. "We could set up the viewer for me instead. I can be the one to look."

"No, this is something I need to do. You've done so much." She didn't quite meet his gaze.

"I'll do whatever it takes. We're in this together." Roger squeezed her shoulder. "In sickness and in health."

"Till death do us part," Libby said softly, her voice catching. She swallowed hard.

"We're not through fighting this cancer thing," he said urgently. "We'll beat it, Libby. We'll beat it."

"Umm." Patting his hand, she moved it off her shoulder. She stood and walked over to the kitchen counter, where she opened a cupboard. "Why don't you take a shower, and I'll make a quick dinner before you have to go teach class." Libby looked over her shoulder at him, forcing a small smile.

He stared at her a minute, his face sagging. "Libby, let me help," he said quietly.

Libby turned away, busying herself at the cupboard; she couldn't stand the guilt she carried at being the cause of his sorrow. "No, it's all right. Go on now."

He was quiet a moment. "Okay, then," he said in a monotone as he moved away.

Libby steeled herself as she sat down in front of the viewer the next day. She stroked the viewer casing a few times before she could move her hand to the switch. Finally, she flipped it on.

As Roger had warned, she encountered worlds too much like her own. Whenever she heard any mention of cancer or chanced upon a reflection of her other self and saw the turban, she twisted the tuner.

When she encountered one self who was sobbing frantically, Libby stopped, unable to move on. While Libby had cried from time to time by herself to release some of the tension of her situation, she never went into histrionics like this. Libby touched the viewer screen, longing to comfort her alternate self, and received a small shock from static electricity. She jerked her hand back.

The other woman's sobs were dying when Roger's voice called out, "Libby?" from the viewer.

The alternate Libby grabbed a napkin, dabbing at her face, as her Roger walked into the kitchen.

Libby thought he looked just like her own husband -- big build, thin, graying hair, down-turned mouth. She hadn't seen Roger smile for too long.

"I rang the bell, but no one answered," the other Roger said. He laid a key on the table. "So I let myself in. I'm sorry. You should take this."

The other Libby nodded, looking down at the table. "I've packed the rest of your things. The boxes are in the bedroom. Take anything else you want."

"Thanks." He walked to the hallway. She watched him.

As if he sensed her stare, he stopped and turned. "Can I do anything for you, Libby?" he asked gently.

The other Libby looked away. "No, thanks," she said in a falsely cheerful voice. "I don't need anything."

"No, I don't suppose you do," Roger said in a flat voice. "You never did."

He left the room, and the other Libby covered her face with her thin hands.

"Don't cry," Libby murmured, although she knew the other couldn't hear her. "It's better for him this way."

Libby had already told her Roger that she wouldn't blame him if he left. After all, he had tested fertile. She was the one who had pushed for the ovary hyperstimulation treatment after years of conventional fertility methods had failed, permitting the doctors to pump her full of chemical soup -- one super-ovulation treatment after another, believing that she could conceive if only she tried hard enough. Three years and tens of thousands of dollars later, Libby finally admitted that it wasn't meant to be, even if the doctors couldn't find a definite reason why she couldn't conceive.

Then, a year ago, she learned she had developed ovarian cancer. They quickly racked up more debt. Roger took a second job to make up for her loss of income, and the apartment slid into disrepair once she started chemo. She couldn't do her part anymore, leaving Roger to bear the weight of their lives.

Who could possibly want to live like that? She wouldn't blame Roger if he did leave. She wished she could transfer some of her strength to this other Libby, so she could let her husband go without anguish, for his own good.

But she couldn't do a thing for this alternate self. Libby picked up the viewer and took it into the living room. She fiddled with the tuner and flipped the dial. After several minutes of static, she finally picked up another world. She saw a 13- or 14-year-old boy with slick black hair and olive skin, arguing vehemently with her alternate self.

"I'm your mother," the other Libby said in a tight voice, "and I'm saying that you can't go now. You've got homework."

"You're not my real mother," the boy growled. He launched into an argument about why he needed to go to the mall.

Libby put her hand over her heart, which beat faster. Shortly after she'd discontinued the fertility treatments, Libby and Roger had looked at adopting an older child through a public agency. They were already in their early 40s by that point and Libby knew they'd have difficulty adopting an infant. And they couldn't afford a private adoption. But after much thought, Libby had put aside her need for a child, deciding that they couldn't give a child a proper home now that they were so far in debt from the fertility treatments. Once she was diagnosed with cancer, she'd been grateful for that decision.

But this boy was beautiful, even through the anger flushing his face, even with his neck muscles cording as he yelled. Her son. He whirled around and stomped out of the living room. Libby took a deep breath, then another.

The other Libby sat down on her couch, smoothing the backs of her hands, an old comfort motion. Libby noticed how bony the other woman's hands were. She didn't need to see anything more to know that this self had cancer, too. She turned off the viewer, knuckling her eyes to hold back the tears for that teenage boy, soon to be motherless.

A few days after her next chemo treatment, when she finally had regained enough energy to get out of bed for more than a couple minutes at a time, Libby drove to the cemetery.

As she'd done several times already, she made her way to her family's small grassy plot. Her mother and father were both buried there, as was her infant brother. Next to the baby's headstone was Libby's stone -- a nondescript tongue of gray granite that she had bought the month before. She knelt beside it, tracing her fingers over the chiseled letters of her name.

After a few minutes, Libby took the viewer from her voluminous shoulder bag and set it on her lap. She had wondered whether she'd be able to pick up her alternate self on another Earth if that other Libby were dead. Perverse, but once that idea lodged in her head, Libby couldn't shake it. The idea had a certain finality -- not like her current state, half dread and half deflated hope -- and represented the dead end the viewer had turned out to be, the dead end her life was.

She flicked on the viewer and immediately a picture formed: a number of viewers, each nested within another, getting smaller.

"What?" she muttered. It reminded her of two mirrors reflecting each other ad infinitum.

"Oh, my God," the viewer said. "You're watching me!"

Libby realized that one of her alternate selves had a viewer, too and that they were looking through each other's eyes. "You've got chocolate in my peanut butter," she replied, mildly surprised at the quip even as she spoke it.

Her other self gave a shaky laugh. "No, you've got peanut butter on my chocolate."

Libby smiled slightly. They'd established that the commercials were the same on their two Earths, if nothing else.

"Did you lose him, too?" the other woman said.

Libby drew a sharp breath. "Roger?" Had the other Libby's husband left her?

"Michael," the woman said in a strained voice.

"No." Had her alternate self married someone else?

The other woman gave a choked sob, blinking rapidly. Libby turned off her viewer, feeling drained. She couldn't cry anymore. She just couldn't.

Libby went home that evening, vowing not to use the viewer again; she didn't think she could stand to experience any more of the pain these other Libbys were going through. But as she lay sleepless on her bed next to Roger, her conscience pricked her. At the graveyard she'd connected with a Libby to whom she could actually talk because they both had viewers. Perhaps she could help this other Libby to feel better. And perhaps this other version of herself hadn't developed cancer, something that could help the lawsuit, that could help Roger. . . .

The next morning, sitting on her grave, Libby flicked on the viewer. As before, she immediately saw a line of viewers shrinking in size, each nestled within another.

"There you are!" the other woman said. "I couldn't find the right you at the house. The others had all lost him, too."

"I live in an apartment, on Avondale."

"An apartment?"

"We sold Mom and Dad's house. We had some money problems."

"I'm so sorry." She sounded genuinely concerned.

"Um," Libby muttered, her face flushing warm. She was glad that neither could experience what the other was feeling through the viewer.

"Is . . . is he with you?"

Surprised at the sudden turn of topic, Libby said, "No, he doesn't come here."

"Oh." The other woman drew out the word, sighing.

Libby bit her lip, wondering if it would be a good thing for this other self to see what she'd lost. But maybe it would comfort her. . . . "I can bring Roger next time," she offered.

"Roger? Is that what you named him?" the other woman asked in a low voice. "After his dad?"

Libby suddenly understood, and she sat back, stunned.

After a minute of silence, the other woman said, "Beth? That's your name, isn't it?"

"Libby," she murmured, feeling numb. "Short for Elizabeth."

"I'm Elizabeth, too."

"So you have a son, Beth?" Libby asked, her eyes closed.

"I did. My only child."

The teenage boy she'd already seen? "Did you adopt?"

"No," the other woman said. "Don't you have--"

Her heart beating hard, Libby whispered, "The fertility treatments worked?"

"What fertility treatments?" Beth asked, followed by, "Oh, Libby." She reached out, caressing the casing on her viewer.

Libby saw a plump, pink hand, like hers used to be before she lost forty pounds going through radiation and chemo. The nails were unkempt, though -- ragged cuticles, uneven ends with a bit of dirt under them, and no nail polish. Libby's own nails were getting too brittle to grow long anymore, but they were shaped, painted a pale pink to look as natural as possible. She gave herself a manicure before every chemo session, trying her best to keep up appearances.

"Are you okay, Libby?" Beth asked.

Libby shut off the viewer, breathing hard. She stuffed it into her shoulder bag, got up, and left.

Later that day, after Roger left for his second job, Libby returned to her grave. She took out the viewer from her bag and flipped it on.

"I didn't think you'd come back," Beth said.

"I have to show you something." Libby opened her bag and took out a hand mirror. She stared into it, seeing bloodshot eyes and emerging cheekbones. She hadn't noticed before, but the brightly colored turban she wore accented how pasty her skin had become.

She reached up and took the turban off. A few hanks of strawberry blond hair slid out; her head was ragged with stubble where the brittle hair shafts had broken and peppered with bald spots. Libby hadn't been able to bring herself to cut the remaining strands. Her hair had once been her vanity, gleaming, falling to the small of her back when loose. She'd never thought of herself as pretty. But her hair, that had been beautiful.

The other woman gasped softly. "Are you . . . sick?"

Libby looked back at the viewer. "Ovarian cancer. Have you been checked for it?"

"No," Beth said, drawing out the word. She looked away from the viewer, to a tombstone next to her.

Libby saw the boy's name etched into the stone, under the carving of a chubby cherub. From the dates, she saw that Michael had been ten when he died. Ten years . . . it was ten years ago that Libby had first started the fertility treatments.

"How did he die?" Libby asked, a hint of anger in her voice.

"Car wreck." The other woman looked down at herself for the first time, and Libby saw that she was sitting in a wheelchair. "I was driving too fast when we hit an icy patch. The car slid off the road, down the hillside, and rolled, landing on the passenger side." She blinked several times. "I killed him," she said, her voice trembling.

"It sounds like an accident," Libby protested, the anger gone as suddenly as it had come.

"No," Beth said firmly, closing her eyes. "It was my fault."

Libby saw only a reddish darkness on her viewer but she recognized the world-on-my-shoulders tone. "Please," she said, not sure what she was asking. "You had him for ten years. I didn't have him at all."

"Maybe that would have been better," the other woman whispered.

"I would give anything to be you," Libby said bitterly. Beth didn't answer. Libby squeezed her eyes shut and wrapped her arms around herself, rocking to and fro. She didn't think she could bear anything more. When her husband spoke beside her, she jumped.

"Were you even going to tell me that you already had your own grave?"

She looked up. Roger was staring down at her tombstone.

"Of course I was," she said, pushing the words out, struggling to hold her composure. "Did you follow me here?"

He glared at her, his face turning red. "Why do you always have to be so damn self-sufficient?"

She realized that it had been a while since she'd seen anything but a calm expression on his face. "I did it for you," Libby soothed, "so you wouldn't have to worry about picking out a gravestone for me after . . ."

"You've given up," Roger growled. "After all we've been through, you've given up. You go through the motions every day, but in your mind you're dead already. And you didn't bother to let me know."

Libby spread her hands. "You'd be better off without a wife who's such a burden that--"

"I'm your husband," he interrupted, "but that doesn't give you the right to make that decision for me."

Libby looked up at him, feeling helpless. "I'm dying--"

"You're not dead yet." His scowl eased, but his tone turned cold. "This is our marriage. We're both supposed to be in it." Roger turned away from her.

She watched him walk off, a dreadful weight in her chest.

"Roger needs you," the voice said from the viewer.

"I have to be strong for us both," Libby said, but her voice sounded weak even to her own ears. "It's all my fault."

"My husband is the only thing that's gotten me through the last year," Beth said in a quiet voice.

Libby pulled herself upright, hanging onto her own tombstone, letting the viewer fall heedlessly from her lap. She saw Roger's back as he walked toward the gate of the cemetery.

She tried to run after him, but took no more than a few steps before she was out of breath. Leaning over, she panted, "Roger." He didn't turn.

Libby stood upright, holding her middle, feeling her ribs heaving under her hands. "Roger!" she screamed.

He stopped and looked over his shoulder. Libby saw that he wasn't as far away as she'd thought. She took one step and stopped, wheezing.

Libby only realized she was crying when she felt the tear slide off the end of her nose. Another followed it, and then another, until she was sobbing, sobbing for everything she'd already lost, sobbing for everything she stood to lose. She blindly reached out for her husband, unable to go any further, unable to see him through the curtain of her tears. She only knew he was by her side when he took her outstretched hand.

"Shhh, honey," Roger murmured. He pulled her to his chest and held her tight.

And Libby let him.


Copyright © 2001 Kim Fryer

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Kim Fryer is a misplaced Midwesterner living in the Northwest with her wonderful husband Bob and their mischievous house rabbit, Scwooey Wabbit. She is also the editor of Rabbit Web, a resource for rabbit pet owners and breeders. For more about her, see her Web site, Flotsam and Jetsam.